Skip to: Site Menu | Main content

From Yahwism to Judahism

Some scholars have argued that there were multiple factors involved in the reasons why the exiled Judahites did not abandon Yahweh for Marduk, but the scaffolding for the multiplicity as it is normally defined is of such a patchwork character as to be unwieldy.

“From Yahwism to Judahism”

 

By Charles David Isbell

Director of Jewish Studies
Louisiana State University
December 2008

 

The era of the Judahite exile (587-539 BCE) marked cataclysmic changes in the fortunes of the inhabitants of Israel and Judah, changes that were both political and theological. On the one hand, the upheaval caused by the loss of independence, statehood, king, and Temple had no political pattern from the past on which to draw. On the other hand, this political catastrophe mandated the necessity of a theological response calling for a level of creativity and innovation equally without parallel in the history of Israel and Judah.

The pre-exilic theological paradigm had been simplistic and one-dimensional: the deity who had defeated the gods of Egypt and Canaan and then had protected Judah from Assyria was clearly the God who deserved to be worshipped. Logically, of course, this same line of reasoning should have dictated the conclusion that since YHWH had just lost the last war, the time had come to transfer religious loyalty to Marduk, i.e., to turn away from YHWH, the God who had defeated Egypt, sustained in the desert, defeated the Canaanites and conquered “the land,” but who had now lost the ultimate battle against Marduk of Babylon.1 In short, had the Judahites exiled into Babylon reacted in a fashion consistent with their own theological paradigm, nothing would have remained except to acknowledge the superiority of Marduk, “convert” to the new deity, and have done with the old stories of YHWH’s might and sustenance of His people.

That the national paradigms of history and culture had been horribly shattered was undeniable. Promises made to Abraham and Moses and David (promises whose fulfillment had once been visible—a land you could see and own, a people too numerous to number, a king whose military might could defend the people, a Temple containing the very essence of divine presence in the world) were gone, seemingly forever, and no reasonable person could have continued to dream of their reclamation. Both reason and “history” should have dictated that exiled Judahites settle down to life in a new land and learn to appreciate the grandeur and spiritual power of the god whose temple adorned the corner. In the words of Joseph Blenkinsopp, “Many of the survivors of the disaster must have concluded that the God of Israel had been discredited along with his prophets, and for the deportees the spectacle of ceremonies and processions in honor of Marduk, city god of Babylon, would have been a constant reminder of Yahweh’s defeat.”2  

That this did not happen is among the more enigmatic features of biblical life.3 Here the words of the late Professor Nahum Sarna are appropriate:

“There is absolutely no parallel in the ancient Near East for a people resisting the current universal religious thought patterns, challenging the prevailing world views and producing a national religion and literature that in its fundamentals goes against the stream of the entire existing tradition of which historically, culturally and geographically it is a constituent part. The phenomenon defies all attempts at rational explanation, for a linear, evolutionary development of monotheism from polytheism is not otherwise attested.”4

 

Sarna believed this struggle “between monotheism and polytheism must have been fought out and decisively settled before the exile took place.5 And while I believe that we may speak of monotheism only much later than Professor Sarna intimates, his analysis of the unique nature of the Judahite drive to monotheism is exactly on point regardless of the time frame into which we wish to place it. But even if we agree with Sarna that monotheism had been achieved before the Exile, we would still need to seek valid reason[s] for a people to have retained belief in their own God and their own religious faith during the exilic era of humiliation and defeat.

Some scholars have argued that there were multiple factors involved in the reasons why the exiled Judahites did not abandon Yahweh for Marduk, but the scaffolding for the multiplicity as it is normally defined is of such a patchwork character as to be unwieldy. In fact, the single most prominent feature of this line of reasoning is its circularity. Whenever a biblical passage is needed as support for an exilic innovation, it is simply assigned a new date and appropriated for exilic theology. To cite but one example, in order to certify Amos 4:6-13 as a “liturgical text which has been reshaped for exilic worship,” Rainer Albertz makes an arbitrary assignment to the pericope of a date that is by no means certain.6 Thus we note that H. W. Wolff (Hermeneia) assigns the same text to the era of Josiah, while Anderson and Freedman (Anchor Bible) place it in the midst of the eighth-century career of Amos himself.

I believe it is more fruitful to seek an explanation for this Judahite resistance to polytheism and movement to monotheism with reference to five steps in the process of adjustment to life in exile, each one of which is intimated within the biblical texts that deal with the period in question.

[1] According to Ezra 7:6 and Nehemiah 8:1, Ezra left Babylonia with a “Torah of Moses which YHWH [Elohim] had given/commanded,”7 a clear intimation that some religious professionals among the exiles in Babylon retained at least some of the most important traditional national narratives and completed the task of forming a national epic of origins that was truly universal in scope. The presence and activity of such a group may also be argued from the results of its work, i.e., the creative process that appears to have produced what later became canonical literature.  This need not be viewed as a creatio ex nihilo, as I have argued elsewhere, but should be viewed as “a recasting, or creative canonizing … beamed to a defeated and dispirited people.”8

A major part of the creative process involved decisions about which literary treasures were so significant as to be deemed theologically and culturally essential to the life of the exiled community. We know from the biblical text itself that numerous literary works were considered important enough to cite, but not important enough to be deemed essential. Only literature considered important enough to function as normative for faith and praxis was copied from the classical Hebrew alphabet into the Aramaic script in which it could be read by a new generation and preserved. Here a single example can suffice. “The Book of Yashar” is quoted or cited only two times in Scripture. The first reference deals with the early period of the Conquest (Joshua 10:13), while the second deals with the period of David (2 Samuel 1:18),9 leaving the impression of a literary work that treats the developing story of Israel from pre-monarchy to David and beyond. Such citations led some earlier scholars to the inference that the Book of Yashar had once constituted a “national epic,”10 and Professor Cyrus Gordon called it “a pre-biblical national epic extending from at least the Conquest to the ascendancy of David.”11 From such citations in canonical Scripture, it is clear that the “Book of Yashar” was considered to be a creditable and believable source for at least part of the story of ancient Israel. A source, perhaps, but apparently not deemed essential enough to become part of the source.12

Although it has been argued that such creative literary activity occurred initially during the post-exilic period, the biblical view is that the work of Ezra depended upon some form of a text that had already achieved broad acceptance. I believe that the most obvious era for the making of such literary distinctions is the Exile.

[2] A second step is closely related to the first. The commitment to tradition was renewed, a commitment exemplified by three concerns expressed in the Book of Nehemiah.13 The first explicitly identifies religious laxity in keeping “the commandments, statutes, and ordinances … [of God’s] servant Moses” as the prime cause of the exile (Neh. 1:7-9), while the second underscores the importance not only of the reading of the Torah by Ezra, but its explication so that clan leaders, priests, and Levites might “gain insight into the words of the Torah” (Neh. 8.13). The third concern of Nehemiah bemoans the ignorance of the “Judean” language [תידוהי] among the children of mixed marriages whose Jewish parent had remained in Judah all along (Neh. 13:24). Pointedly, this linguistic failing produced by mixed marriage reminded Nehemiah of the great Solomon himself, whose “foreign wives caused even him to sin” (Neh. 13:26).

This tripodal commitment to tradition involved the ascription of authoritative texts to antiquity (“Moses”), and not only the rote memorization of past events, but also “remembering” them, by which was meant the investiture of those past events with current meaning and value, done most notably with the idea of exodus from Egypt. This first great salvation epic about Egypt had been experienced by only a few, but the story had then been expanded to become the defining paradigm of the larger and much more diverse group that participated in the formation of a people. In Exile, the story of the Exodus provided the pattern whereby a second great salvation epic, this one with overtones of a possible release from captivity in Babylonia, could be told.  After noting that von Rad was “trapped in the conventional insistence of scholarship that the claims for God in the Old Testament were rooted in history and in God’s actions in history,”14 Walter Brueggemann nonetheless observes,

It is clear that this literary-theological generativity utilized materials that had been treasured in earlier times. Thus there is important continuity between older materials and the exilic final form. In large part, the reuse of older materials continued to respect the earlier locus of materials, so that one can continue to identify Priestly, prophetic, legal, and sapiential inclinations. At the same time, however, the depth of the exilic crisis and the daring of this generative moment also worked an important discontinuity in the material. As a consequence, the final form of the material has become something new.15

 

Brueggemann defines such activity as “a double reading,” whereby an old narrative is “reciphered” to meet a new situation, and he notes further that this “is not a one-time practice; it makes visible in Jewish textual practice the principle of reading as reuse; thus texts often take on double or multiple readings, which are to be understood in their putative time and place as well as in their reused time and place.”16

Without including a complete assessment of the literary features that testify to this renewed interest in the past, we may note at least one telling point. What the Bible openly presents as its “Primary Narrative” [Genesis-2 Kings] begins with a cosmic outlook involving the entire universe (“heaven and earth”) and concludes that with the deportation to Babylon of the king and other leading Judahite citizens (2 Kings 24-25), this history of the whole world has come to a screeching halt. This testifies to the conviction of those surviving in exile that the story of the whole world was uniquely their own story, and more importantly, the story of their deity.

[3] Many of the exiles began to acknowledge that YHWH was indeed sovereign over nations far beyond the borders of one tiny country, a view nurtured by the traditions of now famous prophets who had been involved in international affairs over centuries of time, from Elijah and Elisha down to Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. If it is true, as Sarna has stated, that “monotheism implies universality,”17 then only a revitalized conception of YHWH as sovereign even over mighty Babylonia and Persia could carry the theological freight of exile. In other words, universal monotheism demanded that the history of Babylonia and Persia, including their hegemony over Judah, be explained in terms of the activity of YHWH in the world.18

[4] The literary leaders among the exiles adopted a policy that included alternate points of view and competing explanations, ranging from diverse views of the order of creation to competing explanations about the call and commission to service of Moses himself. It may surely be argued, in particular, that the firm traditions of the diverse origins of Israelites were maintained, with traditional yet originally separate narratives linking all or part of the group to Mesopotamia, Egypt, Midian, and Canaan itself. Most obvious, of course, are the twin foci of the Torah itself, the Priestly cast given to the first four books followed by the deuteronomistic/prophetic focus in book five, supplemented by the continuation of the Torah in Joshua-Judges-Samuel-Kings.

[5] Also maintained was the tradition that even the earliest expressions of Yahwistic faith and religion had not sprung de novo out of thin air. First, the exodus story itself is cast in the literary format of a cosmic struggle between the deities of Egypt and the deity of the Hebrews who had been previously unknown (see Exodus 5.2). Second, no effort was made to hide the contact of Moses with a Midianite priest from whom he learns much that bears ongoing theological, legal, and administrative significance for the developing Israelite people (see Exodus 18:13-27). Much later, third, no attempt was made to hide the fact that Solomon himself had borrowed freely from a pagan king the architectural plans for the Temple itself.19 Fourth, liturgical formats for worship reveal numerous psalms that match in literary structure similar prayers known elsewhere in Egypt and Babylonia. It may not be doubted that biblical authors viewed Moses, David, and Solomon as having sanctified by transvaluation everything they borrowed to make it specifically Yahwistic, but the borrowing is never denied by the biblical text itself.20

This should not be taken to imply that nothing unique can be attributed to the people who constituted Israel and Judah. In particular, we should be uncomfortable with the recent theory that Jewish ideas about creation and a “god of the heavens” must have been borrowed during exile from the Zoroastrian conception of Ahura Mazda. In the first place, our knowledge of Zoroastrianism is clouded by a severe lack of evidence about its origins and growth, with the result that different scholars date the career of Zoroaster to periods ranging from 1400 to 500 BCE. In the second place, the great Cyrus of Persia, in a document recovered archaeologically and datable to his era in the sixth century BCE, never mentions one word about Ahura Mazda. He does claim to be the patron of both Marduk and other national deities,21 but he makes no mention at all of Zoroaster or of Ahura Mazda and attributes none of his military and political successes to the latter. Third, every record we possess of Zoroastrian religion indicates that a theological commitment to dualism was one of the fundamentals of the faith from every period of history. To the contrary, in Scripture, not least of all in those texts that stem from the Persian period, it is clear that YHWH and YHWH alone is Creator of everything, both good and evil! This may be a reaction against the dualism of Zoroastrianism, but it certainly is not a simple borrowing of the idea of a creator deity that had been absent from Judahite thought until the Persian period. It is also noteworthy that none of the written texts of Zoroastrianism in our possession are linked to the era of Zoroaster regardless of when he is believed to have lived, and even scholars who argue that early Iranian Gāthās [“hymns” (of Zoroaster)] date to ca. 1000 BCE, admit them to be so difficult that their meaning can be grasped “only with the help of the later Zoroastrian scriptures.”22

Iranian priests of the early first millennium actually rejected the use of writing for their holy beliefs, and the fact is that these beliefs existed only in oral form until the sixth century CE! And yet these written texts are the ones which Persian scholars are required to use in interpreting the teachings of Zoroaster, who lived between 1000 and 2000 years earlier. Shaul Shaked has framed the matter accurately and concisely. “All arguments about possible contacts between Israel and Iran come to the stumbling block of the problem of chronology. All detailed accounts of any aspect of Zoroastrian theology exist no earlier than in books compiled during the Sasanian period [3rd-7th centuries CE!] or later, after the Arab conquest of Iran.”23 In short, the texts being compared to the Bible were written more than one thousand years later than the Persia with which Judahites came into contact.24

But such ideas are easy to expound from the historical perspective of 20/20 hindsight. We may assert that “Judahism,” the precursor of rabbinic Judaism, as a religion was born out of the Exile and that it lived on to bless the world directly as well as through Christianity and Islam. But we still have not explained the how or the why of it all. Is there a reasonable hypothesis that can account for the facts as we have them?

The Judahites who were hauled away into exile had to search for answers to their fate by turning inward. The option normally followed by nations and peoples who suffered such a fate was described above—just accept the external “facts”—one god lost and another god won, so follow the winning deity. But those among the exiled Judahites who refused to abandon the earlier theories they had been taught took an additional step, setting ideas about YHWH and his power alongside equally compelling ideas about the serious nature of the divine demand for justice. The prophetic traditions knew the career of Elijah and his fight to the death against syncretism with Baalism; the writings of Amos excoriating people for injustice, and specifying unjust behavior as the root cause of political calamity; the anguished warnings of Jeremiah about the inevitability of punishment as the consequence of behavior that failed to comply with the standards of the Sinai covenant.25 We may not understand fully why such sermons had been honored, studied and transmitted by the group known as the “Guild of Prophets” [“sons of the prophets”]26 when the nation as a whole, from the leaders down to the common people, had chosen to ignore them.27 But it seems clear that these previously ineffective teachings were among the prophetic messages that claimed the attention of religious professionals in Babylonia as they had been unable to do before the Exile.

In fact, contra Blenkinsopp, Babylonian Exile came to be interpreted as the proof of what the giants of the past had “predicted.” Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah had been correct! YHWH did indeed punish His own people for their “sins.” But these classic pre-exilic messages also contained the germ of what grew to become a crucial idea within exilic thought, a conceptual step that made possible the reconstruction of Yahwism into Judahism. If the prophets had been correct in their announcement of doom, then perhaps some of their other messages, messages of hope from the same preachers, now certified by the history of defeat and exile to be true prophets, might also have merit. A careful study of the works of these great prophets from the past does indeed show that their messages of doom had been double-edged, for numerous biblical prophets of judgment had also spoken of restoration, often in the same sermon.28 Many times when they had thundered forth judgment for sin, they had carefully included its bi-polar opposite—mercy for repentance.29  

[1] So Isaiah had indeed spoken of disaster but had also promised that the destruction of the people of God would not be total, for a “remnant” would be spared. Symbolically, Isaiah had given to one of his children the ominous name Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz, “swift is the booty, speedy is the prey” (see Isaiah 8:1-4). But to another son he had given the optimistic name of She’ar Yashuv, “a remnant will return” (see Isaiah 7:3). Even beyond these specific examples, however, it is significant to note that the first twelve chapters of the Book of Isaiah are organized in such a patterned way that five sharply condemnatory oracles (1.2-6; 2.6-22; 3.1-4.1; 5.1-7; 5.8-30) are balanced by promises testifying to the capacity of YHWH to create anew following harsh judgment (2.1-4; 4.2-6; 9.1-7; 11.1-9).  

[2] The pessimistic Jeremiah had penned a letter advising the exiles to settle down, purchase land and live normal lives as good citizens in Babylonia (Jeremiah 29:1-7). But the same prophet had also predicted that exile itself would be ended within 70 years (see Jeremiah 29:10) after which restoration would begin. And the man who had advised others to settle down to normal lives in Babylonia had himself purchased land in his Judahite home town, ordering the purchase deed sealed in a jar for preservation as part of the public record so that future generations would learn of his unshakeable confidence that Jews would someday return from Babylon and once again own land in Judah (Jeremiah 32:6-15).

[3] Even the frightfully negative Amos had argued that after the people of God had been torn apart by YHWH as a lion ravages a defenseless sheep, “a couple of shank bones or a piece of an ear” (Amos 3:12) would be snatched away to safety. This graphic picture is thought by some scholars to be tied to the law of responsibility for a sheep left in one’s possession, the presentation of scraps of the animal to its owner serving as proof that it had been destroyed by a wild beast rather than the custodian.30 But the completion of the verse itself makes such a view impossible: “Thus shall the Israelites who dwell in Samaria escape with the leg of a bed or the head of a couch.” In addition, the editorial placement of the saying in Amos belies such an interpretation, setting it at the beginning of an extended exposition of the social sins of Israel (Amos 3-4), accompanied by a listing of the divine actions that had continually failed to produce repentance (see Amos 4:6, 8, 9, 10, 11). The theme of social sins does not end until the radical call to “goodness” and “justice” that comes in 5:14-15. In other words, even following the most horrible disaster imaginable, still there was hope if there could be repentance and reformation. Ronald E. Clements has argued that this pattern was so pervasive that “warnings of doom and disaster are always followed by promises of hope and restoration.”31

Still, even if we discount this single verse from Amos 3:12, the Book of Amos includes a clear reference to survival elsewhere: “The town that marches out one-thousand strong will have one-hundred remaining, and the one that marches out one-hundred strong will have ten remaining” (5:3).32 The editorial supplement at the end of the verse, לארשי תיבל, shows clearly that this is not merely a generalized proverbial statement but is intended specifically for Israel.

So if the great prophets had been correct about punishment, perhaps they might also have been correct about restoration. If they were, the most reasonable conclusion to draw in exile would have been that the moral imperative to maintain a life of faithfulness to YHWH and all of His demands made at Sinai remained in force! In other words, even while sitting in abject defeat and humiliation, the Judahites in Babylonia could not afford to abandon the core truths of the past. Stories about a God who freed, sustained, blessed, guided, and demanded ethical and moral behavior from His people were still valid and must continue to be taught and inculcated into life because restoration apart from utter faithfulness to YHWH could not ever be achieved. And the prophetic authorities who had promised hope and restoration were the very same prophets whom “history” had proven correct about doom. Sitting in Babylonia, the Judahite exiles were forced to admit for the first time that Judah had been wrong, smugly and dangerously wrong. Only the prophets had been proven correct by “history,” and thus only the prophets had earned enough respect to command the attention of people who had lost everything.

We may call oracles of judgment part “A” and oracles of survival or restoration part “B” of the prophetic message. According to the standard prophetic view of sin and retribution, the failure of Judah to heed part “A” had led to the inevitability of punishment. As we have seen, that few if any had believed this aspect of prophetic preaching before the defeat of Judah is not to be doubted, and perhaps only the reality of defeat and exile could have served as confirmation of the truth of what part “A” had emphasized. For the first time, such negative interpretations, especially those irritating links between social justice and the fate of the nation, appeared true in Babylonia as they had seemed irrelevant in Israel and in Judah.33 Once part “A” had been verified, survivors in Babylonia would have discovered reason to hope that part “B” might be true as well. Since survival and restoration could not occur among those who were continuing the “sins” for which the people were indicted in the messages of judgment, here we may locate the impetus for doing in Babylonia what had never been done in Judah, i.e., the creation of a society of justice and obedience to the covenant with Yahweh, a society that would be worthy of divine favor and blessing.

It is Isaiah of Babylon, the anonymous “Second Isaiah,” who latches on to this “B” component of earlier prophets and expands it, fleshing it out into a fully formed doctrine of consolation and restoration. Despite claims in Isaiah 42:9; 43:18-19; and 48:3-8 that salvation is something entirely new, the literary link between First and Second Isaiah is easy to discern. The great eighth-century master prophet, Isaiah of Jerusalem, had predicted that, “There will be a highway [mesillah] out of Assyria for the remnant of His people who will be left, just like there was for Israel on the day that they came up out of the Land of Egypt” (11.16).34 His prophetic successor in sixth-century Babylonia opens his “Book of Consolation” with the same pregnant word, mesillah. However, there is a major development between the two views. In the whole of chapter eleven, there is no mention of double punishment that triggers the forgiveness of YHWH, merely the blind hope that some distant day, a new era of perfection in a second Garden of Eden would somehow arrive. It is the Babylonian Isaiah who articulates a doctrine of punishment both justly deserved and doubly paid, followed by forgiveness and the call for human action to “prepare a roadway [derekh] for YHWH in the desert, make straight in the wilderness a mesillah for our deity” (40.1-3).

“Second” Isaiah evinces his belief in the universality of YHWH in yet another important way when he speaks of the Persian Cyrus as the “messiah,” a term previously limited to kings of Israel and Judah. Lisbeth Fried has amplified and defended an earlier suggestion from Klaus Baltzer that this implies a transfer of the idea of messiahship from the dynasty of David to the foreign ruler who accomplished the purpose of YHWH although he himself was neither a Davidide nor even a Yahwist.35 This of course represents a major step in the direction of a monotheistic/universal view.

But Isaiah of Babylon adds a second designation of Cyrus that is equally telling, having YHWH refer to him (44:28) as “My Shepherd” (rô‘î).36 We may note also that Psalm 77:21 speaks of YHWH as having “led Your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.”37 Because two of the most revered Israelites of all, Moses and David, both had been shepherds as younger men, it is particularly significant that neither they nor any other Israelite leader ever received the title “shepherd [of YHWH].”38 In fact, there is only one royal title that may be compared to “shepherd,” and that is “servant” (‘eved), a prized description itself almost exclusively limited to the giants of Israelite tradition, most notably Moses and Elijah.39 Remarkably, Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon became the only non-Israelite to be accorded the title ‘eved YHWH (Jeremiah 25:9; 27:6; 43:10), in which capacity he was seen to serve as the pawn or instrument of YHWH. As all three Jeremianic references indicate, it was YHWH Himself who brought about the destruction of Judah, not Nebuchadnezzar. This was punishment from YHWH to His disobedient people (25:4-8), and the Babylonian monarch was no more free to act on his own volition than the Pharaoh in ancient Egypt had been to stand against the desires of YHWH to free His people from slavery. Similarly, Cyrus was perceived as the “shepherd [of YHWH]” because he too accomplished the complete will of his Master, this time the will to restore through Cyrus what the divine One had destroyed earlier through Nebuchadnezzar. In short, both foreign rulers, one a Babylonian and one a Persian, were perceived as instruments in the hands of YHWH, each doing the bidding of the Master/Owner.40

The actions of Cyrus surely buttressed this point of view, offering a political mechanism by which a second spiritual chance could be earned and a return to Judah made possible. Repeatedly Second Isaiah argues that the true test of God is His ability to declare in advance the future that He alone can create. But the emphasis is not left to the past. It is a “new thing” that is trumpeted, and the Guarantor of that “new thing” is the One who alone is God, made explicit in Isaiah 44 as never before. Here the preaching of Ezekiel and Second Isaiah also come to the forefront, joining in the articulation of a new theological paradigm, no longer based uncritically on the Exodus-Conquest model, but expanded to include a more universal scope as well as a more tightly argued doctrine of a God who did more than win merely for His own people. This international deity both blesses and manipulates foreign powers to punish His own people and then calls to obedience and forgives, once again manipulating a foreign power to makes restoration possible. Thus the God of Israel and Judah also comes to be viewed not only as the Designer and Creator of Israel’s history, but as the Controller of the larger world. Here lies the theological moment during which an international religion was birthed out of a parochial and nationalistic womb, the moment when “Judahism” began to be formulated out of ancient Israelite Yahwism. That this moment occurred at the watershed of defeat and humiliation is its most remarkable feature.

This was an explicitly Judahite theological affirmation, as is clear when the preaching of Deutero-Isaiah is compared with the famous Cyrus cylinder41 containing the Babylonian version of the decree of Cyrus to allow exiled Judahites (and exiles of other countries as well!) to return to their homeland. On the cylinder, Cyrus gives credit for his victory over the city of Babylon to the Babylonian deity Marduk, who, claimed Cyrus, was so angered at the misrule of Nabonidus, that He (Marduk) acted out of compassion for the oppressed, as well as because of the numerous ruined sanctuaries throughout the country. In other words, this too is a clear theological claim depicting a deity acting in a universal (or at least an international!) capacity to bring an end to the distress of His own people and provide better leadership for them, even though that leadership could only be found via a non-Babylonian who was not a devotee of Marduk. Thus what is unique about the oracle of Deutero-Isaiah is not that it ascribes the military success of Cyrus to a non-Persian deity, something already done in the Cyrus cylinder, but that it was specifically the deity of Judah to whom alone credit for the shaping of then-current world events was due.

Standing side by side, the differences between the claims of the two competing theologies are stark. The Cyrus cylinder depicts Cyrus as fully aware of Marduk and his obligation to Him, while Deutero-Isaiah specifically notes that Cyrus had no knowledge of YHWH (note lo’ yeda‘ttanî in 45:4). But the contrasts extend further. By the Cyrus cylinder we are told that “[Marduk] pronounced the name of Ku-ra-aš (Cyrus), king of Anshan, declared him to be(come) the ruler of all the world.” According to Deutero-Isaiah, “I YHWH am the One who calls your [Cyrus’] name; … I called you by your name, I gave you your title”. It was not Marduk of Babylon who “beheld with pleasure his (i.e., Cyrus’) good deeds and his upright mind” (note 44:28), or who “traveled at his side like a real friend” (45:2a). It was not Marduk who grasped the right hand of Cyrus in confirmation of the royal office or girded him for kingship and success. Only YHWH had acted freely to create history as He desired, using Cyrus as His pawn. The activities of Cyrus had begun at the “pleasure” of YHWH (note יצפח in 44:28), and the entire spectrum of his accomplishments had been the creation (note the three roots רצי, ארב, and השע in 45:7 and passim) of YHWH the God of Israel, even though the Persian monarch remained ignorant of that fact.

There is surely no better witness to the prophetic explanation of the miracle that, “a nation’s link with its God persisted in spite of the nation’s complete ruin.”42 It is imperative to note that this link not only persisted, but it also grew beyond the boundaries of its earlier simplistic paradigm which called for allegiance to YHWH because of His obvious military victories over other gods [Egyptian, Canaanite]. This time, even in the defeat of His own people, He had remained in full control over kings, nations, and events.

It was this international sovereign deity who would become the God of the Jews.43



End Notes:



1Jeremiah 44:15-19 presents the alternate opinion held by Jewish women exiled to Egypt, that their misfortune was traceable to their abandonment of the worship of other deities, especially Asherah. Their opinion is categorically rejected by 44:22-23.

2A History of Prophecy in Israel, Revised and Enlarged (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1974, p. 187).  

3Here too we may note the argument by Ephraim Stern about the Philistines as an example of one people whose fate was far different from that of the Judahites: “They were destroyed and exiled; they never returned … From that point on, there were no more Philistines.”BAR 28:3 (2002), 39.

4Nahum M. Sarna, “Paganism and Biblical Judaism,” Great Confrontations in Jewish History: The J. M. Goodstein Lecture Series on Judaica, 1975, edited by Stanley M. Wagner and Allen D. Breck (Denver: University of Denver, Department of History, 1977/5737), reprinted in Studies in Biblical Interpretation (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2000/5760), 17.

5Ibid.

6See his A History of Israelite Religion in the Old Testament Period 1 (London: SCM Press, 1994).

7See also Nehemiah 8:1.

8The Function of Exodus Motifs in Biblical Narrative, (Mellen Press, 2002), p. 10. See also pp. 5-7.

9Some scholars believe that a third reference is found in 1 Kings 8:12-13. See conveniently C. F. Kraft, IDB, 2, 203. If this third reference be admitted, the span of time covered by the Book of Yashar would be extended well into the era of Solomon.

10First suggested by Sigmund Mowinckel, “Hat es ein israelitisches Nationalepos gegeben?” ZAW, 1935, 130-152.

11Cyrus H. Gordon, The Common Background of Greek and Hebrew Civilizations (New York: Norton Library, 1962), 295.

12In addition to the Book of Yashar, we may note also “The Book of the Deeds of Solomon” (1 Kings 11:41); “The Book of the History of Mankind” (Genesis 5:1); “The Book of the Wars of YHWH” (Numbers 21:14); and the oft-cited “Book of the Annals of the Kings of Israel [and Judah].” I have discussed these and other such references in “History and Writing,” Bible and Interpretation (www.bibleinterp.com).

13An additional indication of the importance of tradition comes from the use of the verbal root שחי, “to be registered via geneaology,” in Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah. As Marc Brettler has shown (How to Read the Bible, Philadelphia: JPS, 2005, 129), this testifies to the remarkable fact that priests maintained a high level of interest in geneaologies throughout the period of Babylonian Exile.

14Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolic: Fortress Press, 1997), 145, n1. I am noting here that biblical history had no workable paradigm by which to conjugate the horrible reality of defeat and exile.

15Brueggemann, Theology, 75. See further his discussion on pages 63-65.

16Brueggemann, Theology, 75.

17“Paganism and Biblical Judaism,” 26. See also Marc Brettler, How to Read the Bible (Philadelphia: JPS, 2005), 154.

18André Lemaire has hinted at this development in “The Universal God: How the God of Israel Became a God for All,” BAR 31.6 (November/December 2005), 57-59; 67.

19Note that 1 Kings 7:14 identifies Hiram of Tyre as a half-Israelite.  

20Although it would be pressing beyond the evidence to argue that the psalms themselves acknowledge this dependence.

21See ANET, 316. “May all the gods [pl.!] whom I have resettled in their sacred cities ask daily Bel and Nebo for a long life for me.” Although YHWH is not mentioned on the Cyrus cylinder, Ezra 1:2 (replicated in 2 Chronicles 36:23) cites Cyrus as claiming, “YHWH the God of the heavens, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and He has charged me to build a Temple [“house”] for Him in Jerusalem, Judah.”

22Boyce, ABD VI, 1168.

23Shaul Shaked, “Qumran and Iran--Further Considerations,” Israel Oriental Studies 2 (1972), p. 443.

24See my “Zoroastrianism and Biblical Religion,” Jewish Bible Quarterly XXXIV:3 (2006), 143-154.

25Cf. Jer 7:9 which mentions stealing (בנג), murder (חצר), adultery, (ףאנ) false swearing,  (רקשל עבשה) “other gods” (םירחא םיהלא).

26I have described the origins and growth of this prophetic Guild in, “The Limmûdîm in the Book of Isaiah,” forthcoming in JSOT.

27Nehemiah 9:34 mentions specifically “our kings, our leaders, our priests, and our fathers” among those who “have not kept Your Torah.” Verse 26 notes the killing of “prophets who had admonished them to turn back to You.”

28Brettler includes as one of his “Five Main Points of Amos and of Classical Prophecy” the idea that “even when Israel is punished, it will not be destroyed; there will be a remnant” (How to Read the Bible, 154, see also p. 167).

29Gerhard von Rad, Studies in Deuteronomy (Chicago: H. Regnery, 1953) sees in the short note about the release of Jehoiachin from prison (2 Kings 25.27-30) a note of hope that he rather disparagingly calls “quite undeuteronomic” (p. 82). But he recognizes elsewhere that the “Deuteronomic presentation” is advanced in “a double capacity: 1. As law, judging and destroying; 2. as gospel—i.e., in the David prophecy, which was constantly being fulfilled—saving and forgiving” (p. 89).

30Note the treatment by Hans Walter Wolff, A Commentary on the Books of the Prophets Joel and Amos, Hermeneia (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), 198.

31“Patterns in the Prophet Canon,” in Canon and Authority: Essays in Old Testament Religion and Theology, edited by George W. Coats and Burke O. Long. Philadelphia: Fortress Press), 1977), 49.

32The concept of the survival of one-tenth is also expressed in Isaiah 6:13.

33See especially Jeremiah 26:5 and Amos 3:7 on “His servants the prophets.”

34If Isaiah 11 is denied to the eighth-century prophet, one is hard-pressed to explain its focus on Assyria after Babylonia (or even Persia) had replaced it as the reigning world super-power.

35Lisbeth S. Fried, “Cyrus the Messiah? The Historical Background to Isaiah 45:1,” HTR 95:4 (2002), 373-93.

36The link to Psalm 34.1 is startling.

37See also Isaiah 63:11.

38Jeremiah uses the portrait of shepherding as a common description of the ruling nobility in his day, while a short time later, Ezekiel devotes a long oracle (34:1-35) against “The Shepherds of Israel,” clearly speaking about human rulers. The conclusion of the oracle, 34:23-24 does in fact specify that a future Davidide will become both “servant” and “shepherd.” See Jack W. Vancil, “Sheep, Shepherd,” ABD V:1189-90.

39The list includes Abraham, Isaac, Jacob/Israel, Caleb, David, Hezekiah, Zerubbabel, Eliakim, Ahia, Jonah, and Isaiah of Jerusalem. See BDB sub ‘eved for references.  

40Eighth-century Isaiah had made a similar point with respect to Assyria (10:7-14).

41The translation by A. Leo Oppenheim (ANET, 315-316), is used in the following specific phrases quoted from the cylinder.

42Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1969), 161.

43My friend and colleague, Stuart Irvine, read an early draft of this paper and offered numerous suggestions, many of which have been incorporated. I offer him my sincere thanks and appreciation for his help.