The Book of Haggai and the Rebuilding of the Temple in the Early Persian Period
It is more likely that any work that might have begun on the temple came to a halt because of problems within the community. This is suggested by the fact that the books of Haggai and Zechariah both assume that the people of Yehud, not outsiders, are to blame for not rebuilding the temple. The reasons for the slow progress on the temple are never directly stated in these books, but we can surmise what at least some of the obstacles to reconstruction may have been on the basis of what we know of the economic, social, political, and religious role of temples in the ancient Near East.
See Also: Disputed Temple: A Rhetorical Analysis of the Book of Haggai (Fortress Press, 2017).
By John Robert Barker, OFM
Catholic Theological Union
Until recently, the period of biblical history known as the postexilic, or Persian, era has suffered from relative neglect by biblical scholars. True, there are have always been those scholars who dedicated their lives to the study of the books that reflect this period – Ezra, Nehemiah, and the prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi – but it is only in the last few decades that Persian period studies have come into their own, giving rise to a vigorous and rich field of inquiry, the fruits of which have only begun to emerge. One reason for the relative neglect had been that we simply did not have much information about this period, which stretches from the end of the Babylonian exile (c. 539 BCE) to the advent of Alexander the Great and the beginning of the Hellenistic period (c. 330 BCE). Compared to the abundant archaeological and historical information available for the centuries before and after the Persian period, only a little evidence from outside the Bible was available to shed light on the two centuries after the exile. Yet recent decades have seen a surge in archaeological work focusing on this period that has provided a wealth of insights into economic, political, social, and religious realities in the Persian province of Yehud (the former kingdom of Judah). On the heels of this increased information has come an increased interest by biblicists. Now Persian period studies of all kinds are flourishing and contributing greatly to our appreciation of the challenging and contentious, yet theologically productive, period of the 6th–4th centuries.
One example of these studies is the work that has been done on the book of Haggai. This short book of thirty-eight verses focuses solely on the reconstruction of the Jerusalem temple that had been destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. In the past, the book’s completely time-bound topic and lack of beautifully poetic, theologically rich passages had led to an unfavorable assessment of both book and prophet by many scholars and theologians. It was not that long ago, for example, that the authors of an introduction to the Old Testament stated that “Haggai is called a prophet, but compared to the pre-exilic prophets he is hardly deserving of the title…. his mind was concentrated only on earthly things…. His whole mental outlook and utilitarian religious point of view…is sufficient to show that he can have no place among the prophets in the real sense of the word.” (Oesterley & Robinson, 1961, pp. 408-9) This particularly blunt evaluation appears to have been shared by others, leading to the book’s general neglect. It simply did not seem to have much to offer the serious student of the Bible or, for that matter, of the history behind it.
But in recent decades the book of Haggai has been subjected to serious and sustained scrutiny by scholars such as Elie Assis and John Kessler, whose excellent work along with others has shown this short book to be much more interesting and complex than previously thought. My own work on Haggai, which engages the text through rhetorical analysis, joins this effort by seeking to reexamine the persuasive intention and strategies of the text (Barker, 2017). Rather than being simply a dull record of an uninteresting prophet and his mundane message, the book of Haggai is in fact a carefully composed and complex counterargument to serious objections to the reconstruction of the temple in 520 BCE. It is also an interpretation of what it meant either to accept or to reject the prophetic call to rebuild. This means that a careful study of the book as a persuasive text can contribute to our understanding of both the book and the nature of the debates surrounding the reconstruction of the temple in Jerusalem in the early years after the exile. This in turn contributes in a specific way not only to the emerging portrait of the early Persian period but also to our appreciation of the nature and strength of the struggles and conflicts among the people who considered themselves the surviving “remnant” of Israel in that time and place.
Despite the fact that the Jerusalem temple would become a central institution in the centuries after the exile, we do not know very much about how it came to be rebuilt. The only biblical account of the reconstruction of the temple is found in Ezra 1–6, which states that immediately after Cyrus gave permission for exiles to return to rebuild the temple, a large number of them did so (Ezra 2:1-67). According to the same book, however, work was halted soon afterwards because of outside interference (Ezra 4:1-24). For many years the project languished until the prophets Haggai and Zechariah “began to prophesy…in the name of the God of Israel” and then supported the Yehudite leaders in rebuilding the temple (Ezra 5:1, 2; NABR). The temple was then completed in the sixth year of Darius, about 516 BCE. There are a number of well-known historical problems with Ezra, one of which is the claim that cessation of the work on the temple was due to outside interference. This assertion is almost universally regarded as an anachronistic projection of later problems between the communities of Judah and Samaria. It is more likely that any work that might have begun on the temple came to a halt because of problems within the community. This is suggested by the fact that the books of Haggai and Zechariah both assume that the people of Yehud, not outsiders, are to blame for not rebuilding the temple. The reasons for the slow progress on the temple are never directly stated in these books, but we can surmise what at least some of the obstacles to reconstruction may have been on the basis of what we know of the economic, social, political, and religious role of temples in the ancient Near East. We can also learn a lot by carefully examining the arguments for temple reconstruction we find in the book of Haggai. I would like to offer here some examples of what I mean.
The book begins with Haggai referring to a group that he calls simply “this people.” This is presumably most or all of the inhabitants of Jerusalem, perhaps all of Yehud. Speaking for God, the prophet states that “This people has said, ‘It is not the time for coming, the time for the temple to be rebuilt.’” (1:2; all translations of Haggai are mine) It is not clear from the text what exactly “this people” means when they say that it is not the time to rebuild the temple. The prophetic response offers only a little help, because rather than directly argue that “this people” has misunderstood “the time,” Haggai instead accuses them of being more concerned with their own problems than with rebuilding the temple. He then informs them that the reason they are experiencing economic and agricultural problems is because they have not rebuilt the temple (1:4-11).
Readers have for the most part taken Haggai’s suggestion that the people are simply being selfish as the actual reason why the people say it is not the time for the temple to be rebuilt. But the Yehudites may have had substantial and principled objections to reconstruction, even twenty years after the end of the exile. Some of the more “materialistic” reasons for not rebuilding would include the need to leave farms and other forms of life-sustaining labor to work on the temple, something many people would not have felt able or willing to do, particularly in hard times. As the temple in Jerusalem would require personnel and sacrifices, it may have been perceived as a heavy and unnecessary economic burden. Religious observance did not in fact require a large central temple and many people, especially those whose families had remained in the land, would very likely have been content with or even preferred local cultic sites at which many of them were undoubtedly accustomed to worship. In addition, a central temple could also serve as a source of imperial control by, among other things, facilitating the collection of taxes. For these and other reasons the local populace—who after all would have to actually contribute labor and resources to the temple during and after reconstruction—may not have been enthusiastic about the project.
Among other Yehudites there would also be “theological” reasons to be hesitant to rebuild. For example, the temple in Jerusalem was understood to have been destroyed by the Babylonians because of Israel’s infidelity to their covenantal relationship with their God. This was widely accepted that temples destroyed as part of the punishment by an offended god could only be rebuilt with the permission of that god. Such permission had to be clearly and unambiguously ascertained, and it was often signaled by evidence – such as agricultural prosperity – that the period of punishment had come to an end. One possible interpretation of the claim that it was not the time to rebuild to the temple is that “this people” understood the poor economic and agricultural circumstances to be an indication that Israel remained under divine punishment, in which case attempting to rebuild to temple against the Deity’s wish would only invite further disaster. Haggai appears to be turning this argument on its head by claiming that the poor conditions are not the continuation of the punishment that included the destruction of the first temple, but a new punishment for failing to build the second temple. While there is some cause to think this argument would work, there is just as much cause to think that not everyone would have been persuaded by it.
One other significant reason the Yehudites might have hesitated to rebuild was the fact that they lacked a divinely-designated royal builder, who according to earlier tradition must be a descendant of David. The Davidic monarchy had come to an end with the Babylonian exile, and as long as Yehud remained under Persian rule it could not be said that God had raised up a royal builder. Yet such a builder was necessary, for the temple in Jerusalem was a national temple, and it was commonly understood in the ancient Near East – and in Israel – that a royal builder designated by the patron god was necessary for a national temple.
Thus, circumstances in Yehud could easily be interpreted according to traditional ancient Near Eastern and Israelite theology as unfavorable signs for reconstruction of the temple. Because the objections could be grounded in various traditional as well as material concerns, and be voiced by different social groups within Judah, it is historically unlikely that a single argument intended to shame the people into starting work on the temple would have been enough to persuade the entire populace to build the temple.
At the conclusion of the first oracle, there is a brief notice from the composer of the book regarding the community’s response: “…all the remnant of the people obeyed the voice of YHWH their God…. But the people were afraid of YHWH” (1:12). While this statement is almost universally taken to mean that all the people responded positively to the prophet and got to work, I believe that this is not only historically improbable, but also not supported by the language of the text. This is significant argument for understanding the rest of the book of Haggai, so I need to explain it here, even if space only allows me to present it briefly.
Haggai 1:12 states that the leaders “and all the remnant of the people” responded to the call. The language here is specific: “remnant of the people,” and it is intended to convey the impression that those who responded constitute the “real Israel.” The term “remnant” very often refers to those survivors of the divine punishment who emerge as a purified and true Israel (Ezra 9:8, 15; Neh 1:2; Isa 10:20-22; 46:3; Jer 50:20, and many more). The composer has carefully chosen this language to reflect the theological perspective that those who believed the prophet, and only those, constitute this “remnant.” The others are simply referred to as “this people” (1:2) or, later in this same verse, as “the people.” Most translators assume that “the remnant of the people” and “the people” in 1:12 are the same and translate this verse accordingly. But if this is the case, we have to ask: why would the people who have just responded positively to the prophetic call nevertheless be afraid of God? The usual answer is that this fear refers to that healthy and reverent religious response often captured by the phrase, “the fear of the Lord.” But if we look carefully at the Hebrew, we notice that it says not that “the people feared” God, but that they were “afraid of YHWH,” a construction that always means a fear that someone is going to cause harm. If we ask why “the people” would be afraid that God would cause them harm, and if we notice that the language of “the remnant” is different from the language of “the people,” we begin to suspect that there are two different groups in view here. The “remnant of the people” are those from among the populace who responded positively to the prophet because they believed he spoke for the God of Israel. But the rest of the community, “the people,” were afraid of God – that is, they were afraid that God would harm them. This is very likely because they did not believe God had sent Haggai and that God had not approved the reconstruction of the temple. If they nevertheless went forward with the project, they would anger God and incur further punishment. Thus, they were “afraid of YHWH.” This distinction is important because it indicates that the prophet has not been successful in persuading the entire community to rebuild the temple, only those who were, according to the composer, “the true Israel.” If we understand the response to be divided, then we can make much better sense of the rest of the book of Haggai.
For example, we can understand the point of the third oracle in the book, the “priestly torah” oracle of 2:10–14. This is perhaps the most debated element of the book, and one which has given rise to a number of interpretations, none of which has garnered widespread acceptance. The debate arises from the difficulty of knowing what to make of the prophetic declaration in 2:14 that “this people,” now also called “this nation” (goy), and their offerings are unclean. What appears to be confusing about this oracle is that the prophet never directly states the reason for calling “this people and this nation” unclean, or why he refers to them as a goy, a term that by the postexilic period is almost always only applied to non-Israelites. Because most commentators assume, on the basis on 1:12, that the entire Yehudite community responded to the prophetic call, and therefore that in this oracle “this people” refers to that same community, they naturally wonder why the prophet is now calling them a goy and condemning them and their offerings as unclean. Various suggestions have been offered, but none has carried the day among a majority of scholars. I believe the answer lies in the fact that the text has earlier distinguished through its language between those who responded to the call (“the remnant of the people”) and those who did not (“the/this people”). In this oracle we have a reference to “this people,” which suggests to me that it is addressed not to the whole community, or to those who responded to the prophetic summons, but to those who have not joined the building effort. They are being characterized here not only as unclean but also as non-Israelite, in clear distinction from those who are working on the temple, who are “the remnant.”
When we consider the strong historical likelihood of a mixed response from the populace, we understand better some of the exegetical puzzles of the book of Haggai. We also have a better sense of the various ways he seeks to persuade the populace to rebuild the temple in the face of what only appear to be unfavorable indicators. These in turn give us some insight into the social and economic realities in Yehud in the early Persian period, and how they were interpreted. We get a strong sense that the question of whether to rebuild the temple was actually quite complex and contentious, with a number of social, economic, political, and religious factors at play.
Much more could be said here, but this gives an indication of the how this scholar of the Old Testament is probing into a text that, for all its brevity, is still susceptible to new analysis. As I mentioned earlier, in the past Haggai was often dismissed as theologically uninspiring, often and perhaps not coincidentally by those who also tended to undervalue the religious role of cultic worship. The temple was a thing of the past and so a text focused entirely on it could hardly have much value for modern readers. It is true that the historical particularity of the book means that its most immediate message—build the temple!—is no longer relevant for most readers. But the book retains its value for modern readers, not necessarily in its more obvious message, but in what it reveals about the nature of a resilient and theologically fruitful tradition. This book is part of the biblical record of a difficult time, in which ancient institutions, traditions, and ways of conceiving of God’s relationship with Israel had to be examined in light of changed circumstances. Some, such as Haggai, retained a more traditional perspective on such things as the national temple, while others saw a diminished or non-existent role for it in the new era. The book of Haggai can give insight into both perspectives through an examination of how it answers objections as well as how it states its own position. This is not just of historical value, because it reminds us that the vibrancy and strength of a religious tradition is often, perhaps only, purchased at the price of contention and strife along with the willingness to engage in argument for the sake of moving forward into uncertain times. In the case of Haggai and the early Persian period, that contention and strife allowed Judaism to arise out of the ashes of the exile.
Barker, John Robert. Disputed Temple: A Rhetorical Analysis of the Book of Haggai. Emerging Scholars. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2017.
Oesterley, W. O. E., and Theodore H. Robinson. An Introduction to the Books of the Old Testament. London: SPCK, 1961.