Prophets of Israel
This is a chapter in Guides to Peace and Justice from Ancient Sages to the Suffragettes, which is published as a book.
You shall not kill.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house;
you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife
or his manservant, or his ox, or his ass,
or anything that is your neighbor’s.
You have plowed iniquity,
you have reaped injustice,
you have eaten the fruit of lies
Because you have trusted in your chariots
and in the multitude of your warriors,
therefore the tumult of war
shall arise among your people,
and all your fortresses shall be destroyed.
So you, by the help of God, return,
hold fast to love and justice,
and wait continually for your God.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall decide for many peoples;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
Then justice will dwell in the fruitful field,
And the effect of justice will be peace,
and the result of justice,
quietness and trust for ever.
He has showed you, O man, what is good,
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God.
For if you truly amend your ways and your doings,
if you truly execute justice one with another,
if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow,
or shed innocent blood in this place,
and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt,
then I will let you dwell in this place,
in the land that I gave of old to your fathers for ever.
I will put my law within them,
and I will write it upon their hearts;
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.
Have we not all one father?
Has not one God created us?
Why then are we faithless to one another?
Shalom is the Hebrew word for peace and comes from the Akkadian salamu, meaning “to be healthy, whole, and complete.” The common Hebrew greeting “Shalom alekem” means “peace to you” but clearly implies “may you be well.”
Amos and Hosea
In the middle of the eighth century BC during the reigns of Uzziah in Judah and Jeroboam II in Israel, a shepherd named Amos came from the Judean village of Tekoa to announce messages from the Lord to the powerful nations of the area. Amos accused and warned that the Lord would punish Damascus for threshing Gilead with sledges of iron, the Philistines for carrying people off to Edom, Edom for mercilessly pursuing their brothers with the sword, the Ammonites for enlarging their territory and killing pregnant women, Judah for rejecting the law of the Lord, and Israel for selling good people for money and the needy for a pair of sandals. Those who “store up violence and robbery in their strongholds” do not know how to do right.
Amos declared that the people of Israel hate the one who reproves them and abhor the one who speaks the truth; they pervert justice by taking bribes, use false scales, and turn aside the needy at the gate. Amos prophesied that they would be the first to go into exile. For his unpopular statements Amos was expelled from the sanctuary at Bethel and told by their priests to go back to Judah. Once again he predicted that Israel would go away into exile, but in the end the Lord promised to restore the fortunes of the people Israel so that they might plant vineyards and gardens and eat their fruit.
Not long after Amos spoke, Hosea was guided by the Lord to take a harlot for a wife to symbolize the unfaithfulness of Israel. He warned that the house of Jehu would be punished for the blood spilt at Jezreel. Hosea also held out the vision of a better relationship with God.
And I will make for you a covenant on that day
with the beasts of the field, the birds of the air,
and the creeping things of the ground;
and I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land;
and I will make you lie down in safety.
And I will betroth you to me forever;
I will betroth you to me in goodness and in justice,
in steadfast love, and in mercy.
I will betroth you to me in faithfulness;
and you shall know the Lord.1
At that time though, Hosea found no faithfulness, kindness nor knowledge of God in the land; there was swearing, lying, killing, stealing, adultery, and they broke all bounds with murder following murder. Hosea found the spirit of harlotry in their religious observances. He said the Lord wants “steadfast love and not sacrifice, knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”2 Those who sow the wind shall reap the whirlwind. Plowing iniquity, they have reaped injustice and eaten the fruit of lies, because they trusted in their chariots and many warriors; so the tumult of war shall arise among them, and all their fortresses shall be destroyed. Thus Hosea advised with the help of God that they should return and hold fast to love and justice, waiting continually on God. Assyria would not save them. The wise would understand that the ways of the Lord are right; the upright walk in them, but transgressors stumble.
Isaiah and Micah
The visions of Isaiah were announced in the reigns of Judah’s kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. The Lord was concerned that the sons he raised had rebelled against him; their hands were full of blood. According to Isaiah they needed to wash themselves clean, cease doing evil, learn to do good, seek justice, correct oppression, defend orphans, and plead for widows. The Lord called them to reason together, promising to make their scarlet sins as white as snow or wool if they were willing and obedient; but those who rebelled would be devoured by the sword. Isaiah proclaimed that the law and the word of the Lord out of Zion would teach the ways of God, who would judge the nations so that they could turn their weapons of war into farm implements. Nation would not have to fight nation, and people would not have to study wars anymore. The good shall do well and eat the fruit of their deeds, but what the hands of the wicked have done will be done to them. The mighty shall fall by the sword in battle. Yet the survivors of Israel will be called holy. The Lord looked for justice but saw bloodshed. Isaiah predicted that within 65 years Ephraim would be broken to pieces and no longer be a people. The wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria would be carried away to Assyria.
Nevertheless, Isaiah had a vision that a child would be born who would secure the government; he would be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His government would increase and bring endless peace with justice and goodness. In his time Isaiah railed against iniquitous decrees, oppression, neglect of the needy, robbing the poor of their rights, and taking advantage of widows and orphans. The one who comes with the Spirit of the Lord with wisdom and understanding will judge the poor with goodness and decide with equity for the gentle of the Earth. His breath shall slay the wicked. The wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the kid, the calf and the lion shall all be together led by a child. They shall not hurt nor destroy anywhere in the holy mountain, for the Earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord.
Isaiah pleaded that the outcasts of Moab be allowed to sojourn among them and be given counsel and justice as a refuge from the destroyer. When no one oppresses any longer, when destruction has ceased, when those who trample on others have vanished from the land, then a throne of steadfast love will be established by one who judges and seeks justice. In 711 BC when Assyria attacked Ashdod, which had been abandoned by Ethiopian-ruled Egypt, Isaiah predicted that Egypt and Ethiopia would also be conquered by Assyria. Ten years later when Egypt tried to help Judah, they were defeated by Assyria.
In his apocalyptic vision Isaiah saw a universal judgment, but in all the destruction and desolation he said that the one whose mind stays on God and trusts in God will be kept in perfect peace. The way of the good is level, and their path is smooth. Yet the Lord warned that those who draw near with their mouth and honor him with their lips, while their hearts are far away, will find their wisdom perishing and their discernment hidden. Those who hide their deeds in the dark and think no one sees them have turned things upside down, for how can the potter be regarded as the clay? Should the thing made say of its maker, “He did not make me”? God will hear your cries and answer. Though you may have to suffer affliction, the Teacher will be revealed; your ears will hear, “This is the way; walk in it.” But woe to those who rely on horses, chariots, and horsemen but do not look to the Holy One or consult the Lord! Woe to the destroyers who will be destroyed, for those who deal treachery will be dealt with treacherously. When the Spirit is poured upon us from on high, then justice and goodness will be in the fruitful field yielding peace, quietness, and trust forever.
Isaiah spoke the words of the Lord to King Hezekiah, saying that the Assyrians would return to their own land, and the Assyrian king Sennacherib did in fact depart to Nineveh. At first Isaiah said that Hezekiah would die, but Hezekiah prayed to the Lord. His prayer was answered, and he was allowed to live fifteen more years, while the city of Jerusalem was delivered from the hands of the Assyrians.
The prophet Micah, a common man from the Judean hills near Jerusalem, was a slightly younger contemporary of Isaiah. He too spoke for social justice and against the violence of war. He complained of those who “strip the robe from the peaceful, from those who pass by trustingly with no thought of war,”3 of those who drive women out of their houses and take away their young children. Micah was probably unpopular for criticizing the lying prophets who might preach wine and strong drink or who cry “Peace” when they have plenty to eat but declare war against those who do not feed them. Micah also criticized the rulers of Israel who abhor justice, pervert equity, and build Zion with blood and wrong, giving judgment for a bribe. He spoke against priests who teach for hire and prophets who divine for money. To Micah, they do not seem upright, as they lie in wait for blood and hunt their brothers; princes and judges ask for bribes, and the exalted utter the evil desires of their souls.
Like Isaiah, Micah declared that God would judge between peoples and decide for strong nations far off, repeating the vision of swords beat into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not fight against nation when they learn to war no more; but everyone will sit under their vine and fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid. Micah predicted that they would be rescued and redeemed by the Lord from their enemies. Micah wrote, “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”4
Zephaniah, Nahum, and Habakkuk
While Hoshea was still ruling in Israel, Hezekiah became king of Judah. Hezekiah attacked and killed Philistines as far away as Gaza. He had a tunnel built so that Jerusalem would have spring water; he also stored up food reserves. After Assyrian king Sargon II was succeeded by Sennacherib, Judah with an army of conscripted troops joined with Egypt and some Philistine cities in a rebellion against Assyria in 701 BC; but they were defeated when Lachish was besieged and taken. The Assyrians claimed to have captured 46 fortified towns of Judah and deported 200,150 of its people. Hezekiah was taken prisoner and paid a tribute of three hundred talents of silver and thirty talents of gold stripped from the doors of the temple. Sennacherib demanded the surrender of Jerusalem, but a timely plague caused the Assyrians to withdraw, a deliverance prophesied by Isaiah.
Hezekiah was succeeded by twelve-year-old Manasseh , who ruled Judah for fifty-five years. According to 2 Kings 21, Manasseh burned his own son as a sacrificial offering and shed very much innocent blood. His son Amon was only king for two years before he was assassinated by a conspiracy of servants, who were then slain “by the people of the land;” these made Josiah king of Judah when he was only eight. Ten years later a book of the law was discovered, and Josiah instituted reforms even more sweeping than those of his great-grandfather, Hezekiah. Josiah made a covenant with the Lord with all his heart and soul to follow the laws of the book. All Canaanite and foreign elements were removed from religious practice, and the houses of the male cult prostitutes were torn down; he also had the high priests of the high places in Samaria killed. During Josiah’s 31-year reign the Assyrian empire receded as Babylonian power increased and took the Assyrian capital at Nineveh in 612 BC. Judah expanded its influence in all directions; but when Josiah tried to stop Egypt from helping Assyria in a battle at Megiddo in 609 BC, he was wounded by the Egyptians and died on his retreat to Jerusalem.
Josiah’s son Jehoahaz was only king for three months before Egyptian Pharaoh Neco had him put in bonds and taken to Egypt (where he died) along with a tribute of a hundred talents of silver and one talent of gold. Jehoiakim was made king of Judah and served Babylonian king Nebuchadrezzar for three years before rebelling. His son Jehoiachin had been king for only one hundred days when he surrendered Jerusalem in 597 BC to Nebuchadrezzar and was deported to Babylon along with a substantial portion of the population. The Babylonians appointed his uncle Zedekiah as king in Jerusalem. Nine years later Zedekiah joined Egypt in a revolt; Nebuchadrezzar returned with his army, and Jerusalem’s starving inhabitants surrendered after two years of siege in 586 BC. Zedekiah was blinded and sent to Babylon along with most of the remaining Jewish population.
Zephaniah prophesied in the early years of the reign of Josiah, calling the people to come together in an assembly and follow the Lord’s commands before the anger of the Lord came upon them. He predicted the destruction of Assyria and the desolation of Nineveh. The Lord promised to renew their love and remove disaster from them by dealing with their oppressors. The lame and the outcasts will be saved and gathered, changing shame to praise and renown among all the peoples of the Earth.
The writing of Nahum also prophesied that the Lord would destroy the Assyrian empire and waste its capital Nineveh. His short work concludes:
Your shepherds are asleep,
O king of Assyria;
your nobles slumber.
Your people are scattered on the mountains
with none to gather them.
There is no assuaging your hurt,
your wound is grievous.
All who hear the news of you
clap their hands over you.
For upon whom has not come
your unceasing evil?5
The prophet Habakkuk asked the difficult questions,
O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not hear?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
and you will not save?
Why do you make me see wrongs
and look upon trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
So the law is slacked
and justice never goes forth.
For the wicked surround the good,
so justice goes forth perverted.6
Habakkuk predicted the Chaldeans were coming with violence, terrorizing and gathering captives like sand. They scoff at kings and rulers and laugh at fortresses – the “guilty men whose own might is their god!”7 Habakkuk acknowledged God as everlasting, knowing we shall not die. The Lord ordained them as a judgment and for chastisement; yet God seemed to look on the faithless silently even though the wicked swallow up the good. How long will nations be mercilessly slain?
The Lord told Habakkuk to write the vision. Those not upright will fail, but the good shall live by their faith. The arrogant and greedy, who – like death – never have enough, will not last. Woe to those who heap up what is not their own! Their debtors will arise; those who have plundered many nations will be plundered by the remaining people “for the blood of men and the violence to the earth.”8 Those who obtain a gain from evil have devised shame for themselves and will forfeit their lives. Woe to those who build a town with blood and found a city with iniquity! For the Earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord. False glory will become contempt and shame; the violence done to Lebanon will overwhelm them. Habakkuk prayed to the Lord for renewal so that in the wrath mercy might be remembered.
Jeremiah wrote that the word of the Lord came to him in the days of Josiah, Jehoiakim, and Zedekiah until the captivity of Jerusalem. The Lord touched his mouth and gave him words to denounce the nations and the sins of Judah in particular. He predicted that out of the north evil would break forth upon all the inhabitants of the land. As with many of the prophets, the Lord was most concerned that his people had forsaken him for other gods. Instead of thanking God for rain and the harvest, their iniquities had kept these blessings away.
For wicked men are found among my people;
they lurk like fowlers lying in wait.
They set a trap;
they catch men.
Like a basket full of birds,
their houses are full of treachery;
therefore they have become great and rich,
they have grown fat and sleek.
They know no bounds in deeds of wickedness;
they judge not with justice
the cause of the fatherless, to make it prosper,
and they do not defend the rights of the needy.
Shall I not punish them for these things?
says the Lord.9
Jeremiah found that from the least to the greatest they were greedy for unjust gain; all the prophets and priests dealt falsely. They said, “Peace, peace” when there was no peace. Yet the Lord still promised that if they would truly amend their ways by practicing justice with one another, by not oppressing the alien, orphans, or widows, by not shedding innocent blood, and by not going after other gods, then the Lord would dwell in the land with them forever. Yet everyone was wary of their neighbor and trusted no brother, for they were supplanters, slanderers, and deceivers; committing iniquity, they were too tired to repent. Thus Jeremiah counseled: let not the wise glory in their wisdom, the might in their power, the rich in their wealth; but let glory be found in understanding and knowing the Lord, who practices steadfast love, justice, and goodness on the Earth.
According to Jeremiah the horror that the Lord would bring was because of what Manasseh did in Jerusalem, and because the people had gone after other gods, forsaken the Lord, and disobeyed the law.
The heart is deceitful above all things,
and desperately corrupt;
who can understand it?
“I the Lord search the mind
and try the heart,
to give to every man according to his doings.”
Like the partridge that gathers a brood which she did not hatch,
so is he who gets riches but not by right;
in the midst of his days they will leave him,
and at his end he will be a fool.10
Jeremiah warned the people of Judah to turn away from evil ways when Jehoiakim first became king. His prophecy of destruction was greatly resented by the priests, prophets, and the people, who called for his death; but others said he did not deserve to die. Jeremiah’s prophecies were written down by Baruch and came to the attention of King Jehoiakim, who listened to them read but then had them burned.
After many Jews were deported from Jerusalem in 597 BC and Zedekiah was made king by the Babylonians, the Lord told Jeremiah to put on a yoke as a symbol that they must serve Nebuchadrezzar, king of Babylon. The prophet Hananiah took the yoke-bars from the neck of Jeremiah and broke them, but the Lord told Jeremiah to tell Hananiah that he was not sent from the Lord and would be removed from the Earth that year; in the seventh month Hananiah died.
When the king of Babylon did return and only Jerusalem, Lachish, and Azekah held out against the Babylonian forces, Jeremiah advised King Zedekiah to free all the Hebrew slaves, for the law of Moses said slaves must be set free after six years. Apparently Zedekiah commanded the release of slaves; but the princes and people went back on this when Jerusalem was besieged. For this breaking of the covenant Jeremiah prophesied that they would be given into the hands of their enemies.
Jeremiah warned that they could not rely on Egypt as other prophets had said; he prophesied the king of Babylon would renew the war against Jerusalem with a siege and a famine that would destroy people, take others into captivity, and burn the city. However, Jeremiah saw a way out, a choice between life and death. He said that whoever stayed in the city would die by the sword, famine or pestilence; but those who went out and surrendered to the besieging Chaldeans, would live. Those who were sent away to the land of the Chaldeans, would be replanted like good figs; but those who remained in Judah, would be destroyed like bad figs. The whole land of Judah would become a ruined waste. Jeremiah sent a letter to those already in exile telling them to pray for their city of exile, for they would find welfare there; they would serve the king of Babylon for seventy years until Babylon was punished for its iniquity in wasting the land. Then they would be brought back, and their fortunes would be restored.
When Jeremiah tried to go home to his birthplace of Anathoth, he was accused of deserting to the Babylonians. He was arrested, taken to the rulers, and tortured. When eighteen months of siege had caused famine and pestilence in Jerusalem, Jeremiah cried out from prison that the people should open the gates to the king of Babylon, for in that way they would be preserved. He said if they did not surrender, they would be destroyed. Many rulers complained to the king that Jeremiah was a madman disheartening their minds and weakening the resolve of the soldiers. Even though King Zedekiah was not perturbed by this, he allowed them to put Jeremiah in a cistern of mire until an Ethiopian told the king what they did and got him released.
Jeremiah was then called before Zedekiah, but he was reluctant to speak, fearing that what he would say would get him condemned to death. When the king promised not to kill him, Jeremiah told him to deliver the city to the Babylonians if he wanted to escape danger and prevent the destruction of the city. However, if he did not do this, Zedekiah would bring about miseries on the citizens and calamity on his whole house. Though he promised compliance, Zedekiah continued to struggle against the siege. When Jerusalem fell, Zedekiah was captured near Jericho with his family. They were brought before King Nebuchadrezzar, who accused him of ingratitude, commanded his sons and the Judean nobles with him to be killed, and had Zedekiah blinded and carried to Babylon.
Jeremiah was with the captives in chains on their way to Babylon when the captain of the guard released him so that he could join Gedeliah, who had been appointed governor by the king of Babylon. With the temple in Jerusalem destroyed, Jeremiah prophesied that the Lord would make a new covenant with Israel and put the law within them, writing on their hearts. The Lord would still be their God, and they would be his people. No longer would each person teach one’s neighbor, because they would all know the Lord from the least to the greatest, and their sins and iniquities would be forgiven.
Many Jews came to Gedeliah at Mizpah, and some warned him that Ishmael would take Gedeliah’s life; Jotham offered to kill Ishmael. However, Gedeliah refused to believe that someone, whom he had not treated badly, could be so wicked; even so, he would rather be killed than destroy anyone who had come to him for refuge. At a banquet Ishmael and ten men did murder Gedeliah; they also killed many Jews and the Chaldean soldiers there, as well as others who came. Ishmael and his men took the people of Mizpah captive and set out for the land of the Ammonites; but Johanan led a revolt and rescued the captives, though Ishmael escaped with eight men.
Johanan and the people went to Jeremiah for advice. Jeremiah warned them not to go to Egypt as they planned; but they went anyway, taking Jeremiah and Baruch with them. Jeremiah prophesied that the Lord would smite Egypt through the king of Babylon and pestilence, consuming the remnant of Judah that went to Egypt. Nebuchadrezzar did invade Egypt on a punitive expedition in the 37th year of his reign (568-567 BC). Jeremiah also prophesied that the king of Babylon would be punished just as the king of Assyria had been for the evil they had done to Zion.
The Lamentations over the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BC was attributed to Jeremiah, but scholars believe that it was probably written by someone else. Among these dirges can be found the following consoling passage:
For the Lord will not
cast off forever,
but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion
according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
for he does not willingly afflict
or grieve the sons of men.
To crush under foot
all the prisoners of the earth,
to turn aside the right of a man
in the presence of the Most High,
to subvert a man in his cause,
the Lord does not approve.11
The prophet Obadiah criticized the Edomites for betraying their brothers; they should not have gloated over the ruin of Judah, looted its goods in the days of calamity, cut off its fugitives, and delivered its survivors in their distress.
Ezekiel and Babylonian Isaiah
Ezekiel, a priest, wrote about the visions of God he saw while in Babylon starting in 593 BC, the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin. His writings claimed to have foreseen the coming siege of Jerusalem, predicting that a third of the people would die of pestilence, a third of famine, and a third by the sword. The disasters he saw were because of bloody crimes and violence; the worst of nations would take possession of their houses, and their holy places would be profaned. Ezekiel wrote that the Lord was only doing to the people of Jerusalem what was in accord with their own judgments. Some of the people were to be saved, and Ezekiel saw how those who lamented the abominations were being marked so that they would not be touched by death.
Ezekiel traveled in Spirit to Jerusalem and described the men who devised iniquity and gave bad counsel to the city. The number of killed in the city had multiplied. They had feared the sword, and the sword would be brought upon them. The Lord predicted they would be given into the hands of foreigners. After they were removed and scattered, they would be gathered again in Israel. Their hearts of stone would be replaced with hearts of flesh. Ezekiel gave signs and allegories how the inhabitants of Judah were to be captured and taken into exile. He described Jerusalem as an unfaithful wife who played the harlot, but instead of receiving money she had to pay for her own harlotry. He predicted that the king of Babylon would come to Jerusalem and take their king to Babylon, a king who had rebelled against Babylon by sending ambassadors to Egypt asking for a large army; but the large armies of the Pharaoh would not help against the Babylonian siege.
Ezekiel expressed the belief that the Lord judges the good and bad by their individual actions. Those who do not worship idols nor defile their neighbor’s wife nor oppress anyone but restore their pledges to debtors, commit no robbery, give bread to the hungry and cover the naked with a garment, do not lend at interest, refrain from iniquity, execute justice in human relations, walk in God’s statutes observing the ordinances – these are good people and will surely live, says the Lord. Those who have done the opposite will surely die for those abominations. However, if the son of such an evil one does good, he shall not die for his father’s iniquity. The one who turns away from past sin and does what is right will live, while the previously good, who commit wrong, will die. Thus everyone is judged according to their ways. Ezekiel exhorted them, “Repent and turn from all your transgressions which you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!”12
Ezekiel warned that things could not remain as they were, recommending that they exalt the low and abase the high. He accused the princes of Israel of shedding blood. Fathers and mothers were treated with contempt; sojourners suffered; orphans and widows were wronged; holy things were despised, and the Sabbath was profaned. Men slandered to shed blood, committed lewdness, humbled unclean women, defiled daughters and sisters, took bribes to shed blood, collected interest and extorted gain. Priests had violated the laws and profaned holy things; princes were like wolves destroying honest lives for gain; and prophets provided whitewash and divine lies for them. People practiced extortion and committed robbery, oppressed the poor and needy, and extorted from sojourners. For these reasons the Lord was going to scatter them among the nations that their filthiness might be consumed out of them. Ezekiel’s wife died when Jerusalem was taken in 586 BC. Ezekiel was guided not to mourn but to remain silent until the news of Jerusalem’s fall reached Babylon.
Like the watchman, who warns the people the sword is coming, Ezekiel was sent by the Lord to warn the wicked to change their ways. The watchman can be blamed if he fails to blow the trumpet, and the people are taken away in their iniquity. If the wicked are warned and do not turn from evil ways, they will die; but the prophet will be saved. If the wicked restore their pledges, give back what they have robbed, walk in the statutes of life, and do no iniquity, they shall live.
The Lord told Ezekiel that people may come and sit before him and hear what he says but not do it. With their lips they show much love, but their hearts are set on gain. The prophet is like one who sings love songs to them; they hear them but do not act accordingly. Ezekiel prophesied against the shepherds of the people who have been feeding themselves instead of the sheep. They eat fat, clothe themselves with wool, slaughter the fatlings, but do not feed the sheep. The weak they have not strengthened; the sick they have not healed; the crippled they have not supported; the strayed they have not brought back; the lost they have not sought; with force and harshness have they ruled. Thus they were scattered, because there was no real shepherd; they became food for all the wild beasts.
The Lord promised to be the shepherd now by bringing them out from the countries and gathering them in Israel. The Lord will feed them with good pasture, seek the lost, and bring back the strayed, helping the crippled, strengthening the weak, and watching over the strong. The Lord will judge the sheep and set over them a shepherd, David, who will feed them. The Lord will be their God and make a covenant of peace with them, banishing wild beasts from the land so that they may be secure. The Lord will send down showers of blessing; trees will yield fruit and the earth its increase. They will know the Lord when he breaks their yoke and delivers them from those who have enslaved them. The cities will be inhabited again and the waste places rebuilt. No longer will nations prey upon them. Such was the promise the Lord made through Ezekiel.
Ezekiel had a vision of dry bones in a valley, and his prophecy restored Israel by bringing the bones back to life. He also described a detailed vision of a new temple. The Lord warned the princes of Israel to cease evicting people, to put away violence and oppression, and to practice justice and goodness. Ezekiel also reported oracles against Ammon, Moab, Edom, Philistia, Tyre, Sidon, and Egypt. In 571 BC Ezekiel prophesied that Nebuchadrezzar would destroy Egypt.
In Babylon, Jehoiachin and his sons were given food as royal hostages. In 561 BC Nebuchadrezzar’s successor Amel-Marduk (Evil-Merodach) removed them from prison to his royal palace. Jehoiachin’s oldest son Shealtiel was the father of Zerubbabel. Much of the great literature of the Old Testament was written in the Babylonian exile. However, after Nabonidus became king of Babylon in 552 BC, pious and patriotic Jews were persecuted with heavy labor – even the aged. More vocal or active Jewish critics were put in dungeons, whipped, beaten, and insulted.
In this situation a prophet arose who looked toward Cyrus, the king of Persia, as a deliverer of the exiled Jews. His name is not known, but his writing was added to the book of Isaiah as chapters 40-55. Cyrus had become king in 559 BC and had conquered Persia’s former masters, the Medes, in 550 and Lydia in Asia Minor in 546 BC. The second or Babylonian Isaiah began his writing by comforting the Jews, saying that their warfare was ended and their iniquity pardoned by the Lord for double all their sins. He proclaimed that a voice was crying in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord with a straight highway for God. Valleys will be raised, and mountains and hills brought low. Rough ground will be made smooth. God’s glory will be revealed, and everyone will see it; God’s word lasts forever.
Jerusalem should herald that God is coming with power bringing rewards and recompense. God is like a shepherd feeding his flock. Who can compare with God? Even the nations are like drops in a bucket or dust on the scales. Yet God gives power to the faint and strength to the patient. God tramples kings under foot, and the earth trembles. Everyone helps and encourages their neighbor. Israel has been chosen and will be helped. Those who contend against them will be nothing. The Lord will provide water for the thirsty. Another power from the north will come and trample on the rulers.
Second Isaiah saw a servant of the Spirit who will bring justice to the nations of the Earth with law. God has called people in goodness and given them as a covenant and a light to the nations to open the eyes of the blind and release prisoners from their dungeons. Former things are passing away, as the new springs forth. “Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise from the end of the earth!”13 The blind will be led; in unknown paths they will be guided. Darkness will be turned to light, rough places made smooth, because those who see do not observe, and those with ears do not listen. Yet the Lord will redeem Israel, which is forgiven, and God’s spirit will be poured forth on them; for their sake Babylon will be broken. Cyrus will fulfill the purpose of the Lord; Jerusalem and the cities of Judah will be built. The God, who created the heavens and formed the Earth, will be worshipped. The prisoners will go forth from Babylon; God will arrange the restoration of Israel.
God’s law goes forth, and divine justice is a light to the peoples of the world; for even the heavens will vanish like smoke, and the Earth will eventually wear out like a garment; but salvation is forever. This prophet asked those who knew goodness and had the law in their hearts to listen and not fear reproaches from men. Jerusalem must rouse itself and stand up. The people of Israel have suffered much, but the good tidings that publish peace and salvation are beautiful, knowing that God reigns. Sing for joy to see the return of the Lord to Zion.
Next the prophet described a servant, who was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows who bore their grief. He was wounded for their transgressions, taking on the chastisement that made them whole. He was oppressed and afflicted, but kept his mouth shut like a lamb going to be slaughtered. He was oppressed by a judgment, taken away, and cut off from the land of the living for the sake of the people’s transgressions, although he had done no violence and had no deceit. This was the will of the Lord, a sacrifice that would make many become good. His soul was poured out with the criminals even as he bore the sin of many and interceded for them. This description of the suffering servant probably described a martyr, who was persecuted for taking on the collective karma (or sin) by revealing what reforms were needed to improve the society, while committing no fault of his own. It would serve as a heroic model for such redemptive sacrifices.
The Persian king Cyrus captured Babylon in 539 BC and made himself its king. According to the account of Josephus, Cyrus acknowledged the all-powerful God and the prophecies that foretold his coming. Cyrus graciously decreed that the Jews could freely return to Judah, and he even gave back to them precious items to be restored in their temple. In addition to Babylon, all of Palestine was now part of the Persian empire. Cyrus appointed Zerubbabel governor of that region across the Euphrates, and Joshua, the grandson of the last high priest, became high priest. In 537 BC about 50,000 people, counting the proselytes who acknowledged the God of Israel, journeyed back to Jerusalem escorted by Persian guards in the joy and peace foreseen by second Isaiah.
Hillel and Philo of Alexandria
Josephus of the first century CE described three main sects of Jews as the Pharisees, Sadducees, and the Essenes, plus a fourth he called the Zealots. The majority followed the Pharisees, who believed the soul is immortal and that the human will can act virtuously or viciously; the latter are imprisoned after death but the former live again. In this era the greatest of the Pharisee rabbis (teachers) were Hillel and Shammai. The disciples of Hillel were known for being peaceful and gentle with the conciliatory spirit exemplified by their liberal master. The followers of Shammai had the stern severity and strictness of their conservative teacher. The school of Hillel found Roman taxation so unjustifiable that they found ways to escape it. When a man came to Shammai and asked to be instructed in the whole law while standing on one foot, Shammai sent him away. To the same request Hillel welcomed him with the golden rule that he should not do to others what he thought hateful to himself. This being the whole law, Hillel urged him to go and study.
Born in Babylon, Hillel came to Judea and began teaching around 30 BC. He introduced the principle of intention to discussions of the law, noting the differences between an event that is incidental and a conscious action. For example, there is a difference between falling off a bridge and jumping. Furthermore, one may jump with the intention of swimming or with the purpose of drowning. Hillel urged people to love peace, cherish humanity, and bring people closer to the law. He warned that those who publicize their own name lose it, and those who do not increase knowledge, diminish it. Using one’s talent for selfish purposes is spiritual suicide. He asked if he cannot rely on himself, on whom can he rely? If he is selfish, what good is he? If the time is not now, when is it? He advised not condemning anyone until you have stood in his or her place. He said that more flesh means more worms, more wealth more worry, more women more witchcraft, more concubines more lechery, more slaves more thievery, more law more life, more study more wisdom, more counsel more enlightenment, and more justice more peace. The liberal teachings of Hillel dominated Jewish culture for more than five centuries. Except for the sexism, they surely were a beneficial influence.
Philo Judaeus lived in Alexandria, Egypt; his birth date is unknown, but he died about 45 CE. Josephus wrote that Philo was from a most noble family. Philo’s brother Alexander Lysimachus was Alexandria’s tax administrator and extremely wealthy. Philo’s extensive writings make it apparent that he was well educated in Greek culture and Jewish customs. He acknowledged his secular studies of grammar, geometry, and music, but he considered philosophy practiced in the service of God the highest pursuit. Philo was much influenced by Plato and other Greek philosophers. He agreed with Socrates that the only thing we can truly know is our own ignorance, because God alone is wise. To the four cardinal virtues of wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance, he added religious faith and humanity, making repentance also a virtue. Philo emphasized the value of equality and traced it back to Moses’ concept of justice. Although he criticized mob rule, Philo believed any form of government could be democratic if it treated all people as equal before the law. He suggested that the goal of history is to unite the whole world in a single state under a democratic constitution.
A treatise he wrote to “prove that every person who is virtuous is also free” suggests that slavery of the soul to vices and passions is worse than slavery of the body to a master. Similarly, the freedom of mastering the passions is better than physical security. In truth only the one who has God alone for a leader is free and may be a leader of others. If desires are what enslave a person, then why is a wise person not enslaved by desires too? Philo’s brilliant answer is that the wise desire only virtue or what comes from virtue. Since the wise are virtuous, they cannot fail to attain their aim. Philo exhorted his readers to fix their affections on truth, the holiest of possessions, rather than on idle fancies related to citizenship, race, ownership, and physical matters; he advised studying the nature of the soul.
For if the soul is driven by desire, or enticed by pleasure,
or diverted from its course by fear, or shrunken by grief,
or helpless in the grip of anger,
it enslaves itself and makes him whose soul it is
a slave to a host of masters.
But if it vanquishes ignorance with good sense,
incontinence with self-control,
cowardice with courage and covetousness with justice,
it gains not only freedom from slavery
but the gift of ruling as well.14
In the outside world Philo noted the wisdom of the Persian Magi and the virtue of the naked philosophers of India; but he described the Essenes of Palestinian Syria in detail. For Philo the Essenes were above all others in devoted service to God, not sacrificing animals, but studying to keep their minds holy and pure. They did not store up silver or gold, but he believed their contentment and frugality made rich those who were poor. They avoided any inducements to coveting and had no slaves. They helped each other and condemned masters as unjust and a corruption of the principle of equality. Wishing to surpass others in fortune causes alienation of affection and hatred instead of friendship.
Philo noted that the Essenes devoted their attention to moral philosophy, especially on the seventh day, using divine laws as instruction. The three criteria that they used for what is right were the love of God, the love of virtue, and the love of humanity. The first involved a pure life, avoiding oaths and falsehood, and looking on God as the cause of all good and no evil. Their virtues involved abstaining from coveting, ambition, and indulging in pleasures; their positive qualities included temperance, endurance, moderation, simplicity, good temper, humility, obeying laws, and steadiness. Love of humanity means goodwill, equality, and fellowship. The Essenes put their wages into a common stock to be available to all; thus the sick were not neglected. Philo observed that even cruel tyrants and hypocritical oppressors could not bring accusations against the holy Essenes because their traditions of eating together and fellowship were well respected.
In another passage on the Essenes from his “Defense of the Jews” Philo reported that they did not take wives because they considered them selfish and jealous, beguiling the morals of the husband. Children are likely to become a person’s first care, and then one does not treat other children the same; thus a person passes from freedom into slavery.
Philo also wrote about the Jewish sect of the therapeutae or healers in a “Treatise on a Contemplative Life.” They called themselves that because they aimed to heal souls of their passions and vices by mastering pleasures, appetites, fears, grief, covetousness, injustice, and other follies. They believed that undue care for money wastes time, which should be economized because, as Hippocrates said, life is short, and art is long. They prayed at sunrise and sunset, and the daytime is devoted to meditation and the practice of virtue. They consulted the writings of many ancient men and used allegorical interpretations for philosophical meaning.
For six days each week individuals retired in solitude in monasteries, but on the seventh day they met in sacred assembly in a chamber dividing the men from the women. They ate only bread with salt to assuage hunger and drank only water to alleviate thirst. They considered wine folly and noted that costly seasonings and sauces excite desires, the most insatiable of all beasts. In their clothing they also practiced simplicity. The origin of their simplicity is truth, and they considered falsehood the basis of pride. Philo contrasted them to athletes who won victories in the daytime but drank wine and committed insults and injuries at night,; he criticized those imitating the luxury and extravagance of the Italians. Referring to banquets described by Plato and Xenophon, Philo disapproved of the Greeks’ practice of promiscuous homosexual love as taking away courage and making them feminine men. Philo preferred those who followed the precepts of Moses. The therapeutae did not use slaves, but the younger served the older. They sing sacred songs, which gives them a beautiful experience of intoxication though it makes them more awake and sharper in understanding.
Philo affirmed love of peace and hatred of war in his essay “On the Confusion of Tongues.” Those who rejoice in oneness reverence the concert of virtues and live calmly. Yet this life is not idle but one of high courage in fighting against those who attempt to break treaties. Men may plunder, rob, kidnap, spoil, sack, outrage, maltreat, violate, dishonor, and murder by treachery; but in war they do so without disguise if they are stronger. People aiming at money or reputation direct all their actions like arrows against a target, disregarding equity while pursuing what is unjust. In the pursuit of wealth, fellowship is turned aside for hatred while benevolence becomes hypocrisy and flattery. One becomes the enemy of friendship and truth, a defender of falsehood, slow to help, quick to harm, ready to slander, reluctant to stand up for the accused, clever at cheating, faithless to one’s promise, a slave of anger, enthralled by pleasure, protecting the bad, and corrupting the good.
Philo believed that even if we are not yet fit to become children of God, we may become children of its invisible image, the most holy Word (Logos). Philo observed that humans are the only creature who, knowing good and evil, may choose the worse and may be convicted of deliberate and pre-meditated sin. He believed that God is the cause of all good but of nothing that is bad; the province of evil things God gave to the angels. Philo concluded that confusion is an appropriate name for vice as can be seen in every fool. Yet the work of God is to bring everyone in full harmony with the virtues.
Philo suggested exposing the worthless person of wealth not by refusing abundance. Instead of wasting money on vices, one could use it for good purposes by contributing to needy friends and one’s country, providing dowries for poor families, and putting private property into a common stock to share it with all deserving of kindness. Instead of being conceited, honor can be used to help worthy people secure better positions and to improve the worse by counsel. At a banquet one can be a good example of moderation. In philosophy Philo compared logic to the walls and fences that protect the plants, but he found the fruit in ethics.
Philo wrote long works on the ten commandments and the special laws of Moses. This led him into a discussion of the virtues. He considered piety the queen of the virtues; he discussed wisdom and temperance, warning against desires that could stimulate many crimes and follies. In turning to justice he believed a judge should be permeated by pure justice. In trying a case the judge should realize that he is on trial too and must assign what each deserves without being affected by supplication and lamentation. The first instruction is not to accept idle hearing, what today is called “hearsay” evidence. The second is not to accept any gifts even if they are from the just side of a case. Philo’s third instruction is to scrutinize the facts rather than the litigants in order to be impartial. In addition, the judge should not pity a poor person in giving judgment, though in private life one is encouraged to give to the poor. Philo considered equality the mother of justice and a spiritual sun.
In his essay “On the Virtues” Philo began with courage by which he meant knowledge not “the rabid war fever which takes anger for its counselor.”15 He found the reckless daring in war that slaughters many antagonists a savage and bestial practice rather than a noble achievement. Others less reckless live on enduring sickness, poverty, and old age, yet healthy in soul with high-minded and staunch valor. Never dreaming of touching weapons of defense, they render the highest service to the commonwealth by their excellent advice guided by unflinching consideration of what is beneficial to restore the life of each individual in their country’s public life. Those who train themselves in wisdom cultivate true courage. Wise temperance also preserves the health of the soul by preserving one’s powers. Philo considered philanthropy or humanity the sister virtue to piety. Moses did not allow himself to be swayed by family affection to favor his own connections. Philo also believed this love extended from people to animals and even to plants; he gave numerous examples from the laws of Moses how all creatures are to be respected.
Philo found arrogance to be vicious because from pride it treats others worse. Repentance is a useful virtue in rectifying things that have gone wrong. To convert from sin to a blameless life shows wisdom. On the political level, Philo hoped to see mob-rule transformed into democracy in which good order is observed. Philo aimed at the integration of mouth, heart, and hand by having words, intentions, and actions correspond to each other. He held that nobility depends on the acquisition of virtue, not on merely being born to excellent parents. Women may aspire to this nobility also by unlearning the errors of their breeding. Philo could find no more mischievous doctrine than believing that justice would not avenge the wickedness of the children of good parents or that honor will not be the reward of good actions by children of the wicked. The law assesses all people on their own merits.
In an essay “On Rewards and Punishments” Philo observed how blessings come to those who fulfill the laws by their actions, for God glorifies and rewards moral excellence that is divine. He noted that pride, as the adversary of truth, can be hard to remove, though it can be subdued by a stronger power. God is perceived by itself alone just as light enables one to see everything else. To those who acquire wisdom by meditation and practice, sight is given. After the practice of youth comes the contemplation of old age, for nothing good can be done without contemplation based on knowledge.
Philo believed deeply in providence and defended it in a dialog with his nephew Alexander. Philo argued that God does not always immediately punish vice just as a loving parent has pity on a prodigal child, hoping for reform. Also the bad may seem to prosper because what the world values as good is not the same as what is spiritually good in God’s view. He cited the example of Socrates, who in poverty never sought wealth but considered only virtue as good. Philo gave the examples of tyrants like Polycrates who suffered a miserable death and Dionysius of Sicily who lived constantly in fear. Dionysius invited a man, who asserted the happiness of the tyrant’s life, to dinner and suspended a sharp ax over his head by a thread. Too anxious to enjoy the feast, the guest would not sit on the throne. Many have been punished for committing sacrilegious robberies. Philo argued that earthquakes, pestilences, and thunderbolts are natural events that are not caused by God’s wrath, because God causes nothing evil. The wisest humans are not impelled to feast on animals like savage beasts.
Philo wrote about Flaccus, the Roman governor of Egypt from 32 to 38 CE. The trouble began during the visit of Herod Agrippa on his way to fulfill his kingship of Philip’s tetrarchy to which the new emperor Gaius Caligula had appointed him. Anti-Semitic Alexandrians made fun of Herod Agrippa by saluting a lunatic in the gymnasium as a king; then they desecrated synagogues with images of Caligula. Philo complained that the governor allowed this even though, with a million Jews in Alexandria and Egypt, there was a danger that such behavior could spread. Flaccus issued a proclamation denouncing Jews as aliens. He even allowed mobs to pillage the Jews as though they were sacking a city. Jewish senators were flogged. Usually at the time of the Emperor’s birthday they were allowed to take down the bodies of the crucified, but instead Flaccus ordered the crucifixion of the living. Philo noted that a search for weapons among the Jews found none. A month later Flaccus was accused by Isidorus and Lampo; these two had previously urged him to persecute Jews and had perverted justice. After being convicted in a trial Flaccus had his property confiscated and was exiled from Rome. Later Caligula, believing those in exile had it too easy, ordered Flaccus and several others killed.
Philo wrote about his diplomatic mission to Emperor Caligula in his Embassy to Gaius. Philo observed that the beginning of Caligula’s reign began with great optimism; but after the sorrow of the Emperor’s sickness, the rejoicing over his recovery was soon soured by the forced suicides of Tiberius Gemellus and Macro and the murder of Caligula’s father-in-law Silanus. Excuses for these crimes soon gave way to consternation over Caligula’s claims to divinity. Philo noted that the Emperor could not compare well to the labors of Heracles, the gifts of Dionysus, the missions of Hermes, the healing and prophecy of Apollo, nor Ares protecting the weak. The Jews particularly resented his claim to godship, and the Alexandrians used this to conduct the pogrom described in Flaccus. In contrast Philo praised the rulership of Augustus and his respect for Jewish institutions. A slave named Helicon helped to delude Caligula into believing the Alexandrians really worshipped him.
Philo was one of five Jewish ambassadors who tried to conciliate Caligula; but they were ignored. News arrived that the Emperor had ordered a statue of himself installed in the temple at Jerusalem; that followed after the Jews destroyed an altar set up by the Jamneians. Rome’s Syrian governor Petronius tried to conciliate the Jews. Jews said they would rather die and asked to send another embassy to the Emperor. Instead Petronius tried to delay the project with a letter. Caligula got angry and insisted the statue be completed soon. Herod Agrippa arrived in Rome but collapsed before the Emperor. After recovering, Agrippa wrote Caligula a long letter to plead for the Jews. This persuaded the Emperor to cancel his order, but he pursued alternate strategies. Finally Philo’s embassy was presented to Caligula, but he dismissed them as fools without really listening to their concerns. The part of Philo’s work that described how Caligula suffered for his wickedness is lost.
1. Hosea 2:18-20.
2. Ibid., 6:6.
3. Micah 2:8.
4. Ibid., 6:8.
5. Nahum 3:18-19.
6. Habakkuk 1:2-4.
7. Ibid., 1:11.
8. Ibid., 2:8.
9. Jeremiah 5:26-29.
10. Ibid., 17:9-11.
11. Lamentations 3:31-36.
12. Ezekiel 18:30-31.
13. Isaiah 42:10.
14. Philo, “Every Good Man Is Free” 159, tr. F. H. Colson.
15. Philo, “On the Virtues” 1, tr. F. H. Colson.
Copyright © 2003-2005 by Sanderson Beck