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Babylon Nurtures the Jewish Priesthood What really happened to the Jews?

Babylon Nurtures the Jewish Priesthood

What really happened to the Jews? 

The major players of the ancient Middle East, century after century, arose in the fertile river valleys and flood plains, primarily of Egypt and Mesopotamia. First one region, then another, produced a dominant city-based culture which had the wealth and resources to conquer an empire. The corridor through Palestine, aside from the coastal strip, was too harsh and inhospitable to engender a similar development. Hilly and remote from trade routes, with few settlements and a backward nomadic population, the land was loosely organized into minor "kingdoms" by rival clans. Rather like the Celts at similar stage of nation building, magistrates took on powers of governance in the period that the Jewish sacred history calls "judges." In the biblical mythology, it is Judge Samuel who appoints (‘anoints’) both the first and the second "kings of Israel." But this minor principality would not survive long.


To Babylon and Back

Whatever might have been happening on a few hilltops in Judaea, on the wider canvass, Assyria - based on the cities of Assur and Nineveh - was conquering an empire. At its height this included both Egypt and the whole of Mesopotamia. In the 8th century BC, the Assyrians were expanding into northern Palestine, putting an end to any ‘kingdom of Israel.’ The first Jewish monarchs that secular history actually records anything at all about are kings Omri and his son Ahab, who held the Assyrians at bay for a few years. As an ‘idolatrous’ minor king Omri's victory goes unnoted in the sacred texts but the murderous end of the dynasty is celebrated in 2 Kings.

Assyrian conquest was followed, in the 7th century, by the rise of a new imperial power – Babylon. Under its king, Nebuchadnezzar, the conquest of Palestine extended further south to include the ‘kingdom of Judah’, effectively ending the existence of any separate Jewish state. The tribal leadership of Judah was resettled in Babylon, under the eye of their Babylonian conquerors. Such forced migrations were not untypical of the period – removing the elite was a way to head off organized resistance in a new colony. But unlike earlier displacements, the Hebrews were resettled as a single group and remained free to meet, trade and own land.

"The exiles were settled in some of the most attractive and important districts in and around Babylon."

– Karen Armstrong, A History of Jerusalem, p 80.

The Jews had much to learn from the rich, cosmopolitan culture of Mesopotamia. Here they witnessed trade, commerce and religion on an imperial scale. In Babylon the Great, walled ‘City of Wisdom’, there were numerous gods and no fewer than fifty five temples. Here was to be found a vast literature of religious texts, in particular the great epic of creation, the story of Gilgamesh. Here too were legends of the origin of kingship and moralistic fables.

In Babylon, the Jews learned of prayer, dream interpretation, astrology, almanacs, and omens. For the first time, they encountered the notion of a personal ‘immortality’ and the fantasy of ‘resurrecting’ the dead. Impressed by the high culture of their hosts, the Jews adopted the lunar calendar of the Babylonians, and, like them, began their year in the spring. In the Babylonian setting the Jews met in ‘gatherings’ (‘synagogues’ in Greek) for the first time. Leadership of these assemblies assumed a ‘priestly’ character. One such leader, Ezekiel, kept the clan together by stressing the role in the community of this Yahweh priesthood and how the ‘glory’ of their god, even without an Ark or temple, was there with them in Babylon. Thus Yahweh floated free of confinement to ‘sacred space’.

The chief god of Babylon was called Marduk not Yahweh, but for Jews from the bleak land of Judaea the experience of his worship was a revelation. As émigrés whose uniqueness could only be preserved by a dogged devotion to a particular deity (reinforced by some self-imposed dietary laws and circumcision) they would have been particularly impressed by the lifestyle enjoyed by the professional temple priesthood. In Babylon, full-time priests monopolized interaction with the supernatural and in consequence, enjoyed immense wealth, prestige and power.

In contrast, in pagan Rome, priests were part-time, co-opted to the honorary role and had other civic or military duties.


Theocracy Established:

"And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation." – Exodus 19.6.

Though the so-called ‘Exile’ lasted barely half a century – from the capture of Jerusalem in 597 BC to the rise of a new dynasty in 539 BC– during this period the Jews borrowed extensively from their host culture. Notably, certain priests (so-called ‘prophets’) wrote texts which explained the tribal misfortune of the Jews in terms of neglect of a particular deity and of the desirability of priestly rule. The book of Eli’jah (literally, ‘God is Jehovah’) is a story set three centuries earlier. In this tale, the prophet denounces King Ahab and his wife Jezebel for that most dastardly of crimes, having a barbecue for the wrong god. Just in case indignant words are not enough, the hero personally slays several hundred rival priests of Baal.

But if fidelity to the correct god is the only way of keeping your skin, why does the ‘righteous’ man suffer? The Babylonians had a poem which addressed the very issue from at least 2000 BC. A righteous man, Tabu-utel-bel, suffered unjustly at the hands of the gods and was stricken by a terrible disease. The reflective story is rehashed by the exiled Jews as the book of Job.

Of particular significance, in view of the subsequent appearance of the book of Genesis, were Babylonian stories of a Great Flood (complete with a hero, an ark and animals); an Assyrian tale of a ‘tower of Babel’; the early life of King Sargon of Sumaria (who as an infant was floated down the Tigris in a reed boat and subsequently brought up by a princess); and a tale of the giving of the law to King Hammurabi of Babylon by the sun god Shamash – 3,654 lines of text inscribed on an eight-foot high block of black diorite.

Wonder of wonders, on this ancient tablet of stone, carved six hundred years before ‘Moses’, are ‘some fifty articles of the so-called Mosaic laws, the identity of which is practically verbatim.’ (Bratton, p37)


Cyrus the Persian – Fire-worshipping Hero of the Jewish Priests!

Heathen king gets endorsement of "Jealous" Yahweh! Amazing!

"Thus saith the LORD to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have holden, to subdue nations before him; and I will loose the loins of kings, to open before him the two leaved gates; and the gates shall not be shut." – Isaiah, 45.1.


Medes and Persians

The Iranian tribes combined to overthrow the over-extended Assyrians (whose capital Nineveh was sacked in 612 BC).

The Persian Cyrus I (559-529) established a 'Babylonian' Empire to which his son Cambyses (529-522) added Egypt in 525.

His successor Darius I (522-486) annexed 'India' and Thrace. Xerxes I (485-465) came up against the growing power of Greece.

560 BC


The Persians defeated the Assyrians at Harran in 609 BCand the Egyptians at Carchemish in 605 BC.


525 - 400 BC

Cyrus endorsed a Yahweh cult in the satrap of Judaea, which remained a Persian colony until the arrival of the Greeks and Alexander the Great.

400 - 343 BC

The Egyptian revolt against Persia was fought with Greek mercenaries. Persian rule of Egypt was interrupted in 404 BC and re-imposed briefly in the next century (343-332).

When Nectanebo II fled in in 343 he was the last of the Egyptian pharaohs.

In 323 the Greek king – Alexander III – himself appeared, conquering Persia and 'liberating' Egypt.


later persia

With the rise of Cyrus, and the Persian conquest of Babylonia, an undreamt of opportunity was presented to the pious ‘elders’ of the Jews. Cyrus was a self-styled ‘Great King’, anxious to have all gods on his side for the conquest of empire. This included a Yahweh cult in the satrap of Judaea. Accordingly, many of the Jews (mostly descendants of the original exiles) were returned to the old homeland. A figure of 42,360 ‘together with their servants and two hundred singers’ is quoted, several times the reported number taken into exile.

God is poor at Math?

The Bible twice lists the number of returnees: in Ezra 2.3-65 and Nehemiah 7.5-67. Although the lists differ, the total remains the same – and differs considerably from a correct tally of the contingent figures!

children of Parosh
children of Shephatiah 
children of Arah 
children of Pahathmoab 
children of Elam 
children of Zattu 
children of Zaccai 
children of Bani, 
children of Bebai 
children of Azgad 
children of Adonikam 
children of Bigvai 
children of Adin 
children of Ater 
children of Bezai 
children of Jorah [Hariph]
children of Hashum 
children of Gibbar [Gibeon]
children of Bethlehem 
men of Netophah 
men of Anathoth 
children of Azmaveth 
children of Kirjatharim 
children of Ramah 
men of Michmas 
men of Bethel 
children of Nebo
children of Magbish
children of other Elam 
children of Harim
children of Lod
children of Jericho
children of Sennah 
children of Jedaiah
children of Immer
children of Pashur
children of Harim
children of the Levites
children of the singers
children of the porters
children of Nethinims
without pedigree







"whole congregation"

Actual total

God's total:











Temple City

These descendants were sent back under Prince Sheshbazzar to set up a temple to help the Persian war effort. Its design – a succession of courtyards set high on a hill, at its heart enclosing a ‘holy of holies’ – was inspired by the multi-level temple ziggurats (which ‘reached up to heaven’) that the Jews had seen in Mesopotamia. Under the patronage of Cyrus, and despite the local opposition of Jews who had never left,the ‘children of Judah’, established a theocratic colony on the Persian model under an appointed Persian governor. Persian rule of Judah would last two centuries.

Before the exile, Jewish religion – such as it was – had Man facing an anthropomorphic, capricious tribal God, who looked for obedience rather than worship to assuage his anger. It was, apparently, Abraham's unswerving obedience when asked by Yahweh to sacrifice his son that validated his choice as ‘Patriarch.’ But at least obedience was within the wit of man himself. Pre-Babylon, only the ‘tribe’ of Levi could be priests and they performed the role of itinerant shamans. Post-Babylon, the Levite priests were downgraded to menial temple workers and the Sadducee clan took over the high priesthood. By taking for themselves the right to intercede with God, to placate his anger and honour his glory, the earthly power of the high priests of the temple was assured.



The theology changed to reflect the new organisation. Yahweh was elevated to sole god and was deemed to require endless sacrifice to placate his wrath. Thus all Jews acquired a duty to bring offerings to the priests (who were thereby freed of more mundane tasks). Not only did this give the priesthood their daily provisions and a major slice of the butchery business but also control over the lucrative leather trades. In time, tribute to the priesthood was extended to include tithes, dispensation fees and commission on money changing (only the ‘clean’ shekel could be offered at the temple; no other coinage was acceptable).

Taking their cue from Zoroastrianism, the dominant religion of Persia, the returnees brought with them not only priestly monopoly and control over worship(and in a theocracy that implied control over law and social behaviour as well) but also the notion of an evil god (Satan) as a counterpoise to good god (Yahweh). Similarly, for the first time Judaism acquired angels and demons. At this point appears the curious tale of an idyllic garden (shades of Babylon), a satanic snake and a disobedient female – which nicely explained why life was full of wickedness, why women should be subjugated and why there was death itself.

The Persians made no images of their dual gods, but for them fire represented purity and was an incarnation of the light god Mazda.. On the other hand matter (including the human body) was created by the dark god Angra Mainyu. In stark contrast, therefore, to the earlier influence of fertility rites of the Canaanite and Phoenician cities - the celebration of life - the Yahweh cult now became at heart hostile to the body. Human sexuality was to cause the priests more distress than any amount of bloodshed.

And bloodshed there was, as the colonisers (the ‘Golan’) drove out (and de-Judaised!) the original inhabitants (theAm Ha-Aretz or ‘people of the land’), whom they were forbidden to marry. The arrival of an organized priesthood acted as a brake on secular development which might otherwise have produced a local monarch, albeit one under Persian dominance. Both Nehemiah, ‘cup-bearer’ to the Persian king, and Ezra, his ‘minister of Jewish affairs’, introduced interpretations and refinements of ‘the Law’ which kept Jewish piety compatible with the interests and security of the empire. With a brutal ruthlessness, for example, Ezra commanded Jews to ‘send away’ their foreign wives and children. ‘Membership of Israel was now confined to the descendants of those who had been exiled in Babylon.’ (Armstrong, p102).


A Sacred History Invented

While fulsome in their praise of the Persian High King Cyrus, the priest authors of official texts made clear their misgivings about ‘kings.’ The ambivalence is finely drawn in the tale, which now appeared but set several hundred years earlier, of an ideal kingship – in fact, of a Golden Age of kingship. Two successive kings, each ruling for ‘forty years’, showed all the right characteristics. (Forty is one of those magic numbers much favoured by the biblical authors, along with seven and twelve. Forty is used no fewer than 157 times, variously for days, nights, years, cubits and what-have-you!!) True, they had a few weaknesses but these became manifest only when they went against Yahweh’s laws and, of course, the guidance of the priests!

In this tale of Israel’s Camelot, it seems kings David and Solomon (his son) combined a brilliant mix of warrior vigilance with unfailing religious devotion. With Yahweh rooting for them, they slew, smote and heroically annihilated peoples – including women and children – all the way from the Gulf of Aqaba to the River Euphrates. Ancient Israel was an Empire, no less! A fabulous story emerges of David, in turns shepherd, musician and giant killer (he felled Goliath with a single shot, causing the whole enemy army to run away – possibly the most unique battle in ancient warfare). Of Solomon we hear of 700 wives plus 300 concubines (such Hebrew virility!); of prodigious wealth; of awesome wisdom (‘wiser than all men’); of a vast army of cavalry and chariots (just like the invaders from the north); of a Red Sea fleet (Israel a maritime power, just like Phoenicia!); of a monumental temple entirely sheathed in gold (beat that, Babylon!); even of an exotic visitor – the Queen of Sheba – paying homage.

David was chosen (‘anointed’) for both himself and all subsequent generations! by a priest (the ‘judge’ Samuel). Once King, David returned the favour by ‘anointing’ Zadok and all his descendants to the position of High Priest. Thus the Zadokite clan became the nucleus of the Sadducee priesthood, the authors of the whole fantastic story.


Without a Trace

Though much honoured in legend (and Hollywood) the simple truth is that no evidence has ever been found of David, Solomon or his ‘empire.’ Neither secular history, nor archaeology, provides a shred of confirmation for the highly detailed and colourful biblical stories. Not a single stone or artifact from what was supposedly the world’s most fabulous temple has ever been identified. The extraordinary magnificence of the Jewish Empire is matched only by the total void when we seek confirmation from any other source.

For example, the Asiatic Greek Herodotus – writing one of the world’s first histories in the 5th century BC – wrote of peoples and places throughout the Persian empire and beyond. Herodotus knew of lake-dwellers in far away Europe and of barbarous tribes along the north African coast. He was familiar with the painted warriors of the Sudan and with the nomads of southern Russia.

Yet in all his work Herodotus makes no single mention of Jews or Hebrews, Judah or Israel. He speaks of the coastal cities of Sidon and Tyre but never of Jerusalem. He records the great temple of Aphrodite Urania at Ascalon but fails to mention any temple of Solomon.

He does, however, know of circumcision and says this:

'"The Colchians, the Egyptians, and the Ethiopians are the only races which from ancient times have practiced circumcision. The Phoenicians and the Syrians of Palestine themselves admit that they adopted the practice from Egypt…No other nations use circumcision, and all of these are without doubt following the Egyptian lead."

– Herodotus, The Histories, Book 2,104; Penguin, p167.

Herodotus gathered much of his information first-hand from priests and holy men. His travels took him to the frontier of Upper Egypt and to Babylon itself. He also recorded popular beliefs and legends. Speaking of the inhabitants at the eastern end of the Mediterranean he says:

'The Phoenicians, with the Syrians of Palestine…have a tradition that in ancient times they lived on the Persian Gulf, but migrated to the Syrian coast, where they are found today. This part of Syria, together with the country which extends southward to Egypt, is all known as Palestine.'

– Herodotus, The Histories, Book 7,89; Penguin, p472.

For Herodotus, this land is the home of ‘Syrians known as Palestinians’. If tribesmen in the interior escaped his attention they assuredly were not the authors of a great empire which supposedly had existed a few hundred years before his own time. More than two thousand years later nothing has emerged to change our understanding:

"This is what archaeologists have learned from their excavations in the Land of Israel: the Israelites were never in Egypt, did not wander in the desert, did not conquer the land in a military campaign and did not pass it on to the 12 tribes of Israel.

Perhaps even harder to swallow is that the united monarchy of David and Solomon, which is described by the Bible as a regional power, was at most a small tribal kingdom."

– Ha'aretz Magazine, October 1999.


All that we do have is some evidence of minor regional war lords or ‘city bosses’ (‘kings’) who, in the centuries before first Assyria, and then Babylon, overran Palestine. Yet more tellingly in the Jewish ‘nationalistic’ saga, we have the rationale for a theocratic state and a religious caste system. The priests are born to rule both because it is Yahweh’s design and because secular kings (even magnificent ones) transgress and run amok.

Yet kings are not excluded out of hand. The priesthood loathed the diminution of their power and the intrusion of secular laws but were delighted by the enlargement of the territory of the theocratic state, such as might be achieved by a warrior king (and as idealised in the ‘empire’ conjectured for Solomon). The duality of power, the conflict between king and priest, runs as a theme through subsequent Jewish history and was never resolved.

Above all, from the ‘Davidic’ legend we get the supposed primacy of the ‘House of David’ and the awful conviction that, when the hour is right, a warrior/priest (or a warrior and a priest – keeping him on the straight and narrow!) will appear to lead the nation of Israel against the forces of darkness – a Messiah (or Messiahs)!

It is worth noting that 'Davidic descent' as some sort of exclusive cachet – supposedly one of the marks of Jesus – would have been patently absurd in first century Palestine. If that fabled polygamous king and his prodigiously promiscuous son Solomon – he of 'seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines'! – had actually existed, the passage of a thousand years (or twenty eight generations according to Matthew, forty three generations according to Luke) would have assured that each and every Jew – all seven million of them – could have made the same 'Davidic' claim!


J.A. de Gobineau, The World of the Persians (Minerva, 1971)
Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews (Phoenix Grant, 1987)
Dan Cohn-Sherbok, The Crucified Jew (Harper Collins,1992)
Henry Hart Milman, The History of the Jews (Everyman, 1939)
Josephus, The Jewish War (Penguin, 1959)
Leslie Houlden (Ed.), Judaism & Christianity (Routledge, 1988)
Karen Armstrong, A History of Jerusalem (Harper Collins, 1999)
Herodotus, The Histories, (Penguin, 1954)

Nicholas De Lange (Ed.) The Illustrated History of the Jewish People (Aurum, 1997)

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