The Shadow of God: Stories
from Early Judaism
The plot is simple. On the eve of Nebuchadrezzar’s invasion of Egypt, the Jew Hattil, a soldier in the Babylonian army, visits his parents Eliakim and Marah before departing on a mission. During the Sabbath meal, Hattil expresses his confidence that the god Marduk will give the king victory, and this indiscretion leads to a dispute between father and son over the power and providence of Yahweh; the mother, Marah, quietly hides her own devotion to Astarte. The following afternoon, Hattil confronts the prophet Ezekiel in the village square. As a result of the confrontation in which Hattil publicly rejects Yahweh, Ezekiel condemns him to death, and the Jewish community is caught between the laws of God and the law of the land. They are powerless, for they cannot harm a soldier of the king, even though he is a member of their community subject to their traditional judgment. Thus begins the Jewish political tradition of exile where the laws of God are in uneasy tension with the laws of the king. The themes of Yahweh’s universalism and the particularism of Jewish identity are also sown in the first story since Jews expect to worship God outside the land of Judah and keep themselves distinct from their non-Jewish neighbors.
By the time of Ezra (ca. 450 B.C.E.), mixed marriages among the returned exiles in Judah are a concern, and when Ezra rules that mixed marriages be dissolved and non-Jewish women and their children be sent away, the dilemma for many Jews would have been very real. Modern Jews (and for that matter, Christians and Muslims) may easily identify with the tension of marriage outside the faith, so the historical incident recounted in Ezra-Nehemiah becomes a good case for exercising the historical imagination. In the second story, “Uriah’s Dilemma,” Uriah has fathered six children by his Moabite wife, Orpah, and his dilemma is whether to send them away or be excommunicated in his own land. What is at stake is the identity of the Jewish people and the struggle to establish monotheistic Judaism.
The tension between universalism and particularism remains the central theme for the next story, “Great is Yah of Elephantiné,” and reaches the historical breaking point of the Maccabean revolt in the fifth story, “The Lawless Ones.” The phrase “lawless ones” is taken from the label applied to the Hellenists by the author of 1 Maccabees, so the story is told from the point of view of the Hellenists, mediated again through a middle position of a handmaid to a wealthy family. As Leontius explains, “the official tradition in the books of the Maccabees is inexcusably one sided, as histories written by victors invariably are, and it is our task to balance the tradition.” At this point in the history of Judaism, we introduce the early attempts to “reform” the Jewish customs by means of allegorical interpretation of Torah, as well as the excessive rejection of traditions, and the inevitable backlash of the literalists.
The second objective, a fairly complete portrayal of society including the major stereotypes, begins with the Essenes in the sixth story, “The Pious Ones,” and continues to the end. “A Fence Around Torah” describes the Pharisees as they adapt to Herod’s rule (ca. 20 B.C.E.), and here I try to meet the expectations of E. P. Sanders for recalling the passion and piety of the Pharisees, as well as to introduce the oral Torah. In the story “Sacrilege,” I take a short passage from Josephus in which he describes a band of Samaritans who, during Passover, defiled the temple precinct with human bones (ca. 8 C.E.). This setting provides the opportunity to describe daily temple sacrifice, the Passover sacrifice, Levites and priests, and also the essentials of the controversy between Samaritans and Jews. The last of the main groups, the Sadducees, is included in the most unusual story of the lot, “I See.” The story is unusual because I give greater control to the narrator, Leontius, and he tells the story through the viewpoint of a blind man, Jokim. I chose this method because I introduce the figure of Jesus of Nazareth, and I wished to allude, tongue in cheek, to the entire modern quest for the historical Jesus, with a subtle play on historical imagination as blind imagination. Perhaps I overreached. On the book’s dust jacket, the publisher describes this story as a fable.
The remaining stories introduce Diaspora Jews, in Rome and Alexandria, the start of Christianity with Paul in Athens, and Prisca in Ephesus, and Gentile converts to Judaism and Christianity. The final story, “Destinies,” takes its basis from the legend of “The Flight of Johanan ben Zakkai,” in which Johanan escapes from Jerusalem during the siege of Vespasian in 69 C.E. This last story is a prime example of the value and limits of historical imagination. Historically, the importance of the legend is that it gave rabbinic Judaism its legal legitimacy by means of Roman sanction on the founder of the academy in Yavneh (Jamnia) after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. The legend comes to us in four accounts, representing two distinct traditions: 1) Babylonian Talmud Gittin 56a-b and Lamentations Rabbah 1.31; 2) Avot d’Rabbi Nathan A, chapter 4, and Avot d’Rabbi Nathan B, chapter 6. Scholarship has been reluctant to attribute a historical basis to the legend, though there is nothing inherently implausible in its basic statement. The encounter of a Roman general with a revered sage of Jerusalem no more strains credulity than Josephus’ account of a similar encounter which led to his freedom. Few seriously question the tradition that Johanan ben Zakkai founded rabbinic Judaism at Yavneh. How he got there is the stuff of legends.
What I have tried to do is re-enact a possible scenario, using the best evaluations of the evidence by other scholars who have argued for a historical kernel, in order to elaborate the thought process of those actors who must have deliberated their predicament. Johanan realizes, belatedly, that Jerusalem is lost, and his final service to his people is a daring attempt to save the authoritative position of the sages for a future rebuilding of Israel without a temple. The imagined conversation with general Vespasian draws not only on the realpolitik of the moment from both the Roman and the Jewish points of view but also on the interpretation of a biblical prophecy (Isaiah 10:34 - 11:2) which is part of the legend. We can accept or reject the reasoning of the rabbinic tradition that the events are a fulfillment of divine prophecy, but we are on firmer ground when we accept that Johanan and all his compatriots wished to find divine providence in their lives. Assuming that a brief encounter between the sage and the general is historical, we can try to see the situation as they saw it and retell the story for our own benefit. In so doing, we can certainly make a full evaluation of what data of the period remains, describe the political situation, recount the sort of reasoning that is plausible, and put it into a fictional dialogue. We cannot, however, argue that Johanan actually obtained the authority he sought from Vespasian because our sources do not sustain such certainty.
Every ancient historical source that we have to work with does essentially the same thing as I have suggested. Josephus embellished the predicament of the Zealots on Masada, inventing dialogue for Eleazar ben Yair and perhaps doing the same with Johanan’s scenario, but either he did not know of it, or he felt it was too similar to his own story of emancipation (and it has been suggested that he borrowed the story of Ben Zakkai to fashion his own, which he wrote after the war). In any case, he says nothing about it. That is left to his fictitious scribe, Leontius.
If works of historical imagination are to be taken seriously, they must be undertaken seriously. The value of historical imagination is to fill in what our sources have left out, but what we know must have been there. And we can expand from a few bits of historical memory into a fuller picture of ancient thought. A danger of historical imagination is that while using an art form of story telling and dialogue, we too easily project modern attitudes onto antiquity, but this is a danger for all historians and can only be guarded against by a careful comparison with our ancient sources. A second danger of historical fiction is that it can beguile the reader into thinking what might have occurred, did occur. Here, it is the responsibility of the historian cum story teller to help keep the known historical data separate from the fictional elaboration. Toward that end, I provide fairly complete endnotes to the sources, and a clarification of the historical and fictional characters in the chronology at the end of the book. Even so, I am aware of the potential for confusion, and such works of historical imagination are best read as supplements to more formal histories. It won’t replace good old fashioned history as done by the German scholars, but it can breathe some life into their histories. Each contributes to the other.