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The Bible in and as History: Books of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi

malachiI end my long read of the Old Testament with the last three minor prophets.

Haggai is one of the shortest books of the bible, being only two chapters long.  It is set in 520 BCE, about 18 Years after the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus, founder of the Achaemenid empire.  Cyrus had pronounced a return of various displaced peoples and a  rebuilding of temples destroyed by the Babylonians.  This included the Temple of Jews.  Cyrus is sometimes seen as a broad reformer or humanitarian, though other historians see this as vested in old traditions; The New Monarch grants reforms and gifts upon achieving supremacy over the old.

So Haggai is set after the Captivity and is a prophecy in regards to the construction of a new temple.  It abjures the people to construct a new temple and then reports that having seen the anger of God, they do.  It has similar themes to other minor prophets; Following Gods will leads to good things, going against it to bad.  The nation has fallen and now risen, a prophecy of good things to come after they pass through destruction.  All in all there isn’t a lot to say about it.

The book is interesting in that it’s set after the end of the Exile.  The Exile obviously holds a central place in Judaism, especially after the destruction of the second temple.  The recurrence; the temple destroyed, being dispersed into foreign lands beneath ‘strangers’ has a central resonance.  Haggai is a prophet speaking in the end of the first exile, unaware of the second.

Zachariah was a contemporary of Haggai, writing in the period of Darius the Great.  Darius was the ruler of the Academician Empire starting in 522 BCE, and it achieved it’s greatest extent during his rule.  These are the persons which would challenge and invade Greek lands, and of them we have accounts not merely from the bible, but also from Greek and Persian sources.

Zachariah is concerned with the history of the Jewish people and in particular the end of the Exile.  It presents first an allegorical history, leading towards the end of the Exile as both a promise of hope and a warning.  “God…” it seems to say “… has warned us before and made good on his threats but look, he also keeps to his promises, so lets not forget that this time alright?”  In this it conforms to other works in the bible but in a more particular way.  Like Haggai, Zachariah is writing from a period in which the temple is being reconstructed and prophecies of previous era’s seem, on some level, to be coming true.  Perhaps not precisely in the way those prophets would imagine, as the Jewish people still did not govern themselves, and the reconstruction was at the will of an Empire that wished obedient Satraps, but still.

The later portions of Zachariah thus reflect a prophecy more optimistic than some; speaking of a bright future for Israel in which it will be a leader among nations.

It should be noted that while a good portion of scholars accept a single authorship for the book in the 6th century, not all do.  Because the later portion of the text has no historical referents and seems to jive with themes from later works, some believe it was authored a century or more later and appended to Zachariah.

We end the old testament with Malachi, which is short and sweet and a bit of an anti-climax I am afraid.  It is only four chapters long, and contains virtually no historical information.  Because it uses a Persian term, most scholars place it after the rebuilding of the temple and the end of the Exile, so after 515 BCE.  This seems logical as a more ancient source would refer to a king rather than a governor, and might use a Babylonian term during the majority of the exile.

Malachi is largely an admonition to the priests to be more faithful.  A list of grievances, and a sort of nag against those who should hold God most high not performing their duties.  Surely not the first or the last polemic against a corrupt priest class.

One historical note is important however.  Malachi makes several Messianic promises, and these show up in Christianity and the New Testament, as obviously Christians hold that Jesus fulfilled those prophecies.  For Jews they stand as things to look for in the coming Messiah.

Alright, so over the course of what is three years, rather than the one I set out for, I have finally finished the Old Testament and am ready to begin the New.  I haven’t quite decided how I will tackle the four gospels, but I might try a different format so as to not get repetitive.  I might also do a post on my thoughts on the entirety of the Old Testament.

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The Bible in and as History: Jeremiah

806px-rembrandt_-_jeremiah_lamentingSo After a long hiatus I am back and hopefully for the sustained rush to the end of this project and the start of others.  I can say that while personal events have kept me from completing this project within it’s initial time-span, I have a greater deal of respect for people who have read the whole thing inside of a year.

I plan on doing some discussion of the entire ‘Old Testament’ when I hit it’s end, but already I see that plenty of these books end up sounding repetitious on first reading.

So the Book of Jeremiah.  Unlike some of the other books of the bible, whom we have to place in history by supposition or comparison with other texts with known dates, we can discern the time-period.  Jeremiah began his mission according to the text, during the Reign of King Josiah of Judah, around 627 BCE, until King Zedekiah, around 586 BCE.  This is a period that starts with Judah’s subjugation by the Egyptians, followed by the Babylonians defeating both the Assyrian s and the Egyptians to become Judah’s overlord.   Subjugated beneath the Babylonian Empire, Judah rebelled several times until it’s elite were exiled to Babylon and it became a province of the Babylonian empire.  This is a story we’ve heard before, and much of the text of the bible was composed during this period or at least formalized there-after.  We can surmise, given the specifics, at Jeremiah being a real person, a real prophet, who left behind actual words.  What within the text is actually his words though is harder to determine.  We know for certain that parts of the text were edited by various authors over the course of the following centuries and it’s unlikely it gained it’s final form until the 2nd century BCE, nearly four hundred years after the events in question happened.

There are two extant versions of the text itself; one of Greek, one of Hebrew.  The later is shorter, but both are contained within the Dead Sea Scrolls.  There is some scholarly disagreement on the nature of these two versions, but what I’ve read seems to indicate that the Greek is probably derived at a later date from the Hebrew.  Like all the texts of the bible we are reminded that their transmission, in a time before the printing press, was by manual copying.  One must assume by priests, whose historical and vested interests would alter over time.  It’s not a question of whether the text is edited, but how much and by whom to what end.

Looking at the text we see an alignment with what has gone before.  Prominence is played onto the Covenant between God and the people of Judah.  The idea being that there is a contract between the people and God.  Like a traditional marriage, where-in the Husband is above the Wife, the people are beneath god and thus correction, judgement and punishment is inevitable because of the peoples betrayal of the covenant.  The deal was struck, one side broke the dead, Gods punishment is essentially just.

This is a running theme we see again and again in the Deuteronomic portions of the bible.  The  fate that befalls the nations of Israel and Judah being divine justice for the falling from the path.

Beyond descriptions of the events surrounding the prophets life, and the descriptions of the fate already befallen, we have actual prophecies.  These are less specific, though some might be taken as that, and more repetitions on a theme.  This bad thing will happen and than this bad thing, and these things will be the result of the broken covenant.  God will use the Babylonians as an instrument of his judgement but than he will bring low the Babylonians themselves and so forth.  The Prophecies both explain the present circumstances of the people, but also point them towards a triumphant future.

Obviously this text holds importance in both Jewish and Christian history.  Besides the actual historical elements, the text frames what will be the various struggles of the Jewish people even after the Captivity is over.  After the destruction of the second temple during the Roman era it would continue as explanation for the state of the Jewish people and part of the promise of the future.  It could also be held as prophecy fulfilled.  God promised Jeremiah that Babylon would be brought low, and look it was.  Jeremiah as a figure is thus referenced elsewhere.

To Christians Jeremiah is a prophet foretelling the coming of Jesus.  The idea that god would forge a new covenant fits into the Christian world-view, with the people of the word filling in for the people of Judah, and Jesus new covenant filling in for the obedience that the people in the ‘New Kingdom’ will show.  What was probably than a literal, somewhat political text initially, with a spiritual dimensions, gains express and complete spiritual dimensions by later peoples.  The ‘New Kingdom’ becomes not a literal kingdom but an imagine future Utopia.  Jeremiah is not the first, nor will he be the last of the Old Jewish prophets to be put to use by later theologians.

That’s it for Jeremiah.  Next it’s on to the fore-heads of ashes and weeping with Lamentations.

 

 

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