In the first of the blessings which Balaam pronounces upon the children of Israel, he exclaims: “Lo, it is a people that shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations. ” Philo, expounding the passage, adds: “Israel shall be apart not so much by reason of the separation of their homes or the cutting-off of their land, but by reason of the peculiarity of their customs; for they shall not mix with other peoples, so that they may not deviate from their distinctive way of life.
” The idea of the separation and selection of Israel is the constant theme of the prophets, as it was the dominant motive of the Mosaic legislation. The Law not only contained a rigid prohibition against the paganism of the surrounding peoples and against intermarriage with idolaters, but enacted a way of life affecting the daily conduct of the individual, which had as its object the isolation of the nation in order to fit it for the moral mission. It has been said epigrammatically by a modern French writer that Judaism is not a religion (a force which binds men together) but an abligion (a force which keeps them separate).
And for three thousand years it has resisted the pressure of other creeds. The mass of the people, indeed, did not always remain loyal to the principles of their teachers and lawgiver. Many a time “they mingled themselves with the heathen, and learned their works”; and most of the kings of Israel and Judah, indulging the more material ambitions for territorial aggrandizement, made alliances with their heathen neighbours, and imitated their ways, and were faithless to the ideal of a chosen people (Rabate Jean-Michel, 1991).
But the prophets never allowed that ideal to die or to become obscured. While they denounced the idolatry of the backsliders, and foretold the destruction of the political power of the kingdom as a punishment therefore, they declared that, after the people had been chastened in exile, a remnant would return to Palestine to form there the centre of a spiritual supremacy over mankind. “And it shall come to pass, that he that is left in Zion, and he that remaineth in Jerusalem, shall be called holy, even every one that is written unto life in Jerusalem. “
At the same time the prophets preached this idea of a universal Judaism, and already in those days the “sons of the stranger” were joining themselves to the Lord. Foreseeing the captivity of the nation, they declared that Israel was to be “a light to the nations,” and, taught by him, all the families of the earth should come up to do worship upon the mountain of the Lord in Jerusalem. “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Summerfield Henry, 1975). The destruction of the political kingdom came about as the prophets had foretold, and Israel and Judah were carried away captive to Assyria and Babylon.
With other peoples the loss of political independence and their enforced exile from the national territory have regularly marked the decline, and often the death, of their culture; but with the Jewish people the reverse happened. Aroused to a consciousness of their transgressions by the national disaster, and to a consciousness of their peculiar spiritual heritage by closer contact with the idolatries and superstitions of their Chaldean masters, the exiles were more receptive to the exhortations of the teachers who sought to inspire them.
True, a section in Babylon thought that exile meant national extinction and that assimilation was the only course open to them, and exclaimed: “We will be like the heathen, like the families of the coun tries. ” “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off” (Romer John, and Elizabeth Romer, 1995). And the majority, though they remained loyal to the religion, preferred their exile-homes, amid the brilliant material civilization of Babylon, to the return to their ruined land.
But a sturdy remnant, cherishing the conviction of a national restoration, resisted the blandishments of their environment, and, when the opportunity came, returned to Palestine to re-establish the cult of their fathers. So, too, of the large body of exiles, who, on the fall of Jerusalem, had gone down to Egypt with the prophet Jeremiah, a number remained loyal, or rather returned to loyalty, to the Mosaic law, and preserved their national way of life.
The Aramaic papyri, recently found in Assouan, establish the existence of Judean communities in Upper Egypt from the sixth century, living their own life separate from the rest of the population, worshipping at their own shrine, speaking their own language, observing the Passover, and in close touch with the national centre. Some amount of syncretism colored their beliefs, for they seem occasionally to have paid homage to other deities besides the God of their fathers; but these strange ideas probably disappeared when the whole nationality yielded to Ezra’s great reformation.
Without committing oneself to the dogmatic speculations of the higher critics who are pleased to assign the composition of the Mosaic code to the period following the Restoration, it is clear from the historical narrative of the books of Ezra and Nehemiah that the religious organization of the Jewish people was much more thoroughly carried out after the return to Palestine than before the captivity.
At Babylon, where the exiles had contrived to keep the religion alive without the temple worship and its ritual, the foundation had been laid for two new institutions, the house of prayer and the house of study, the Bet ha-Keneset and the Bet ha-Midrash. When the faithful remnant returned, indeed, they first set about the work of rebuilding the temple, but they brought with them the habit of meeting for prayer and study, without ritual and without sacrifices, in local gatherings.
Every village in Judea where a Jewish community was settled and every place in the dispersion where Jewish life flourished had its religious meeting-place and its teacher. While the priests and the Levites were the hereditary leaders of the cult at the sanctuary, in the country scribes, distinguished for their knowledge of the law and the traditions, were the leaders of the religious life.