The prophet Ezekiel

Israel’s Axial-Age prophets no longer saw Yahweh as a god of war, or one appeased by empty ritual, they emphasized a more individual relationship with Yahweh that involved individual responsibility, morality and justice. It was while in exile in Babylon in the sixth century BCE that Jews learned that Yahweh could be worshipped away from the Temple and began to conceive of Him as the one true God who transcends borders and empty ritual. Jewish scholars began to collect and redact the memories, stories, and events from written and oral tradition – quite possibly to preserve their identity – that would create what we know today as the Old Testament.

The Jewish People

Clay tablet

One of the Amarna letters found at the site of Amarna (commonly known as el-Amarna or incorrectly as Tel el-Amarna).

Possibly the first written record of a Hebrew people dates from approx. 1398–1350 BCE where mention is made in the Egyptian el-Amarna letters of a desert-dwelling “Habiru” in the cities of Canaan. As far as we know, these were bands of mercenaries and artisans, independent people regarded by many as part of the underclass.

About 1250 BCE, a group of Canaanite refugees fled slavery in Egypt – the Exodus that is celebrated to this day at Passover. In their minds, their God had triumphed over the might of Egypt and allowed Moses to lead his people to safety. This traditional story tells us that Moses then receives God’s laws on Mount Sinai and brings them down to the people, only to find the Israelites worshipping a golden calf. Moses becomes angry and smashes the tablets on which the laws are written. Admonishing Israel, he returns to the mountain and obtains a new set of tablets which he gives to the people, placing them in the Ark of the Covenant for safekeeping. Thereafter, the Ten Commandments served as a sacred bond between the Israelites and their God.

Clay tablet

Ba’al with raised arm, 14th – 12th Century BCE found at Ras Shamra (ancient Ugarit), Louvre.

The Hebrew Bible has several contradictory accounts of which laws the Israelites were given by God, how many they received, and where and when they got them. The version, above, was recorded at least six centuries later, during the Axial Age. Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman in their book The Bible Unearthed: Archeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts, contend that these events most likely never happened: “…the Exodus narrative reached its final form around 650–550 BCE. Between 640 and 630 BCE the Assyrians withdrew from Canaan and were replaced by the Egyptians. It was Egyptian domination that was the basis for Exodus, which was really a story about the growing conflict between the Israelites and the Egyptians during the seventh century. Somehow those who wrote it projected the events back several centuries in time.”

In around 1225 BCE, a period of turmoil all over the Mediterranean region when the Bronze Age world collapsed, the extreme threat from foreign peoples lead the Israelite tribes to unite and form the Kingdom of Israel. Three centuries later civil war split Israel into two states, Israel and Judah, that collectively became known as am Yahweh – the people of God. Yahweh was their divine warrior and these were warring times. But, as is typical of pre-Axial societies, the vast majority also turned to other gods for solutions to different problems. King Ahab, under the influence of Jezebel his Queen, allowed Phoenician gods to infiltrate the land, especially the goddess Astarte and Ba’al, the god of harvests. In spite of the admonitions of prophets such as Elijah insisting on the exclusive worship of Yahweh, the Israelites would not become a monotheistic people until the height of their Axial period in the late 6th century BCE.

The Axial-Age Prophets

Map of the Levant.
The early 8th century BCE was a more peaceful time with both states expanding and trade flowing freely between them. The practice of religion was now completely external and superficial, the regular performance of ritualistic obligations and sacrifices the only requirement. Over this period, the rich became extremely so and their good fortune was interpreted as evidence that the divine Yahweh rewards materially those who regularly perform the prescribed ritual obligations.
The poor, they claimed, were so because they did not do so and thus they deserved their lot. In reality the poor were exploited by the rich and a corrupt political and legal system made it impossible for them to achieve a better life.

Etching of Amos

Amos the Prophet: interpretation by Gustav Doré.

Into this situation entered the prophet Amos, a common man who came from Tekoa not many miles from the city of Jerusalem. Amos made his living raising sheep and sycamore trees and selling them in the market towns and villages of the northern kingdom of Israel. He became deeply troubled by the disparity he saw between the rich and poor, and by the way in which political and religious leaders tried to justify it.

Dreams and visions convinced Amos that Israel would collapse as a consequence of its behavior. He saw that Yahweh was not impressed by empty ritual and festivals, but instead wanted justice to “flow like water and integrity like an unfailing stream.” He felt that Yahweh would destroy Israel, its king and the lands surrounding Israel. And Israel would suffer the most because the Israelites knew God.

Attributing the power of any god beyond its normal territory was an unusual idea at the time. But to Amos, Yahweh was the only god, and not subject to the boundaries of any country, He is the God of all, and His demands are universal and affect all nations.

The prophet Hosea was active 753–725 BCE, just a few years later, but by this time Israel’s monarchy was unstable and invasion by Assyrian armies seemed, and was, imminent, only kept at bay by enormous tariffs paid resentfully by the people. Like Amos, Hosea was certain that Yahweh cares nothing at all for ritual services, but for Hosea Yahweh is primarily a God of Love. His power and justice, though essential, are subordinate to His love and mercy. He desires correct understanding and morality from the people who are “destroyed from lack of knowledge.”

Etching of Amos

Russian icon of the prophet Hosea, 18th century (Kizhi monastery, Karelia, Russia).

To Hosea, Yahweh’s punishments are remedial, not retribution, and as such they are an expression of His love, and used as a last resort to teach lessons that people refuse to learn in any other way. He warns that the people of Israel will be captured, but in captivity will be an opportunity for them to gain a better understanding of Yahweh and how to worship him. From this point on it seems that the Hebrew people understood that Yahweh would never leave them, and that any suffering, tragedy or hardship they encountered was an opportunity for learning.

Hosea’s words imply an individual relationship with Yahweh and a responsibility of the self which is Axial in thinking: “Who is wise, and he shall understand these things? Prudent, and he shall know them? For the ways of the Lord are right, and the just shall walk in them: but the transgressors shall fall therein” (Hosea 14:9). Both saints and sinners must learn that “it is time to seek the Lord” (10:12).

Isaiah was active in Jerusalem in the Southern Kingdom of Judah in the 740s and prophesied for at least 40 years. Although privileged himself, he was, like Amos, an outspoken voice for the common people who were being victimized by the rampant corruption of the ruling class. Like Hosea, Isaiah did not predict the final or complete destruction of the nation as did Amos, but instead saw the Assyrian invasion that conquered Israel in 722 BCE as an inevitable punishment from Yahweh, that would result in a change in the moral leadership of Israel and in an increase in his people’s
spiritual strength.

Icon of the Prophet Isaiah

The Prophet Isaiah, by Ugolino di Nerio, (ca 1317–1327, National Gallery, London).

The prophecies of Isaiah clearly express Israel’s messianic hope for the first time. The term Messiah means “anointed one,” or one who has been chosen by Yahweh for a specific purpose. In Isaiah’s prophecies, the Messiah is portrayed as an ideal king and judge who will understand the plight of the poor and will ensure that their rights are protected and that they are justly treated. The concept of a coming Messiah took on a number of different meanings during the centuries that followed and became one of the most important ideas of Judaism.

In 597 BCE Nebuchadnezzar the Babylonian king, son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, violently ransacked Judah and took the young king Jehoiachin and 8,000 of his people, including royal and aristocratic families, prisoners to Babylon. Babylon would invade and capture Judah on two more occasions, but it was this first group, wrenched from their homeland and Temple, who created a new Axial Age vision for the Jews.

drawing of a head inside a round object

An engraving inside an onyx-stone-eye in a Marduk statue that depicts Nebuchadnezzar II.

The Jews were treated well in Babylon. They were allowed to live together in towns and villages along the Chebar River, where they could farm, earn a living, and practice their way of life and religion. They were encouraged in letters from the Prophet Jeremiah to “build houses and live in them, take wives and have sons and daughters, but seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

Painting of Jeremiah

The figure of Jeremiah on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, by Michelangelo.

In Babylon they learned that Yahweh could be worshiped away from the Temple in Jerusalem, even in a foreign land. He could be worshipped in their way of life anywhere. Like Amos and Hosea, Jeremiah told them to examine their own conduct. Morality and justice were imperative, but the essential element of religion was the individual’s personal relationship between himself or herself and Yahweh. “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil.” Human beings follow their desires not their intellect, so personal transformation depends upon sincerity and a change of heart and, above all, on Yahweh’s help: “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people” Jeremaiah 31:33.

Like Amos, Hosea and Isaiah before him, Jeremiah agreed that the external forms of worship were meaningless, unless, he said, they helped to bring the individual closer to Yahweh.

The prophet Ezekiel, active in the Chebar River area at the time, also saw that the suffering of exile must lead to a deeper personal relationship with Yahweh. Ezekiel emphasized that the “sins of the fathers” will not be visited on the children, and that each person will be judged by God on the basis of his or her own righteousness or sin.

Painting of Ezikiel

The prophet Ezekiel, Sistine Chapel.

It was while in exile in Babylon – quite possibly as part of an effort to preserve their identity and ensure that they were not assimilated into Babylonian way of life – that Jewish scholars began to collect and redact the memories, stories and events, some from written and some from oral tradition, that would create what we know today as the Old Testament. With the aid of a new order of “scribes” they completed the bulk of the first five books known as The Torah (the Teaching). These books trace Jewish genealogy back to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph and to an ancient place which was the start of all their memories – Eden, a garden watered by the rivers Tigris and Euphrates which according to the Torah was the original human’s birthplace. It was the birthplace of Adam (whose name means “human being” – from the word “adama” which means “red” and “earth,” perhaps the red earth from which man was created).

The Torah is often called the Tanakh, which stands for Torah (T), Neviim (N) and Ketuvim (K).

Painting of a group of people gathered around a monarch

Cyrus the Great helped the Hebrew exiles to resettle and rebuild Jerusalem, earning him an honored place in Judaism. Painting by Jean Fouquet.

The Babylonian Captivity taught the Jews to hate idol worship and to rely on the word of the one true God. It was now available through scribes and scholars who taught and preserved the scriptures and produced the rabbinical literature known as the Mishna (God’s laws allegedly passed down orally and not recorded in Scripture), the Gemara (a commentary on the Mishna and a compilation of accepted traditions), and two volumes that were later added to and combined to form the Talmud. Now with no temple, the Babylonian Jews instituted places for assembly or “synagogues” in which to conduct formal Jewish worship and to provide schools for study and Jewish education.

In 539 BCE, King Cyrus absorbed the land of Babylon and surrounding areas into the Persian Empire, which spread across the Fertile Crescent reaching as far as Greece. The exiled peoples under Babylonian rule were allowed to return home. To some, the Persians, therefore, seemed the bearers of divine forgiveness. Many stayed on in Babylon but others in 538 BCE arrived back to the destroyed city of Jerusalem, to its ruined buildings and fallow fields.

Five Books of Moses (Chumash Torah)

The Torah is often called the Tanakh, which stands for Torah (T), Neviim (N) and Ketuvim (K).

Current Title
& Translation
Original Hebrew Title and TranslationGreek-Latin-English Title
(“In the beginning”)
Maaseh B’reshit
(the account of the beginning)

(“the names of”)
Yesi’at Misrayim
(the going out from Egypt)
Torat Kohanim
(the law of the priests; the priestly code)
(“in the wilderness”)
(counting, census)
(“the words”)
Mishneh Torah
(the repeated/second law [see Deuteronomy 17:18: “a copy of this law”])

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