Zadokite Priests

“Zadokite Priests”  from A Provocative People, (2012)

Judea was an economically difficult place. The Yahweh cult provided the basis for its economic survival, if not prosperity. At the heart of the Yahweh cult was the ancient world’s version of tourism—religious pilgrimage. Judea was so small that it functioned pretty much as suburban Jerusalem. And the basis of the Jerusalem economy under the Zadokites was religious pilgrimage. Jerusalem became a shrine city, very much what it is today.

This shrine city featured a famous sanctuary, an impressive clergy, elaborate ritual, rites of purification and the aura of holiness. The city of warrior monarchs was transformed into a city of priests. Jerusalem took on the persona of a minor Vatican City. At its head ruled the High Priest in all his splendor. Below him were the administrative clergy. And below them were clergy who dealt with the public.

Some of the state revenue came from taxation and the profits of Zadokite-owned land that grew in size over time. Most of it came from the Diaspora, from prosperous Jews who made substantial gifts to the Temple treasury and from the thousands of Diaspora pilgrims who lived outside Judea but spent their money on what was now more than the homeland. It was the Holy Land. The emergence of the Diaspora and the beginnings of the Jewish middle class enabled Judea and Jerusalem to survive in a manner that its local economy would never have allowed. The cult of Yahweh helped to preserve Jewish national identity outside of Judea.

The Zadokite administration confronted several serious problems. The first problem was the presence of competing scriptures. Over the years, the Protest Movement and the schools of Yahweh prophets had produced many books about Yahweh and his connection with the Jewish people for which their devotees claimed divine origin. The most prominent troublesome books had been part of the “D” narrative and had been excluded from the Torah because they anticipated or exalted the house of David. Today we call these books Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. In these books the story of the Protest Movement is told.

Because of the residual affection for both the royal house of David and the Protest Movement in Judea, the Zadokites reluctantly accepted these books as the word of Yahweh. But they consigned them to a status inferior to the Torah, claiming that the revelation at Sinai was far more important than the teachings of “later” prophets. In fact, these prophets were only repeating what had already been revealed in the Torah. The Zadokites reversed the order of reality. They asserted that the Torah was the inspiration for the “protest prophets,” when indeed the truth was the opposite. The protest prophets were the distant parents of the Torah.

The “book” problem was only a symptom of a larger problem of public dissatisfaction with Zadokite rule. The Zadokites had become an entrenched aristocracy who, together with their supporters, reaped most of the benefits from the wealth of a shrine city. They were pedigree snobs who excluded ambitious families rather than embraced them. The pedigree system was too narrow a foundation for an expanding shrine city.

The pedigree issue was the trigger for the second problem of racism. As the Yahweh cult expanded in the Diaspora, non-Jews were attracted to the religion of the Jews. But racial criteria excluded them from joining. These non-Jews were willing to accept the fact that becoming Yahwists meant that they would have to become Jews and to repudiate their birth nationality. But the Ezra restrictions provided them with no possible way to become Jews. In time, the Ezra system broke down in the Diaspora. Non-Jews were admitted to the Jewish nation. But Jewish public opinion was ambiguous. It still is. Converts still have difficulty being fully accepted as Jews. What is most interesting about this development was the rising non-Jewish interest in the cult of Yahweh. Was it the monotheism of the cult? Was it the iconoclastic severity? Was it the discipline of its devotees? The Jews as a nation had found a way to increase their numbers independent of reproduction and territorial conquest.

The third problem of the Zadokites was their ideology. Yahweh had no devil to accept responsibility for evil—and no other gods to blame for dis-aster. In a world filled with evil and injustice the only defense of Yahweh became the notion that all suffering is a function of sin, and that the blame falls on human beings. The reward system in the Torah is clearly this-worldly: long life, prosperity and many children. If you view punishment as collective, there is always somebody’s sin floating around for which you can be justifiably punished. But in an age when individual self-awareness was growing, it was only just that every individual should suffer for his own sin. The suffering of the innocent was intolerable. That is the lament of Job, the protagonist in one of those trouble-making new books which challenged the Zadokites. Clearly, in a world where the good suffer and the wicked prosper, a “this-worldly” reward system is not enough. It needed overhauling.

The overhauling would lead to trouble for the Zadokites. Their staid little system of unavailable rewards, especially for the common people, inspired religious resistance. This resistance featured visions of spectacular rewards in a life after death. Unjustified suffering was the result of evil forces in the universe which Yahweh had not yet subdued. But a time was coming very soon when a final battle between Good and Evil would take place. At this time Evil would be crushed, God would triumph, the righteous would be rewarded and the wicked punished. Even the dead would rise from their graves to face judgment. The Kingdom of God would be established. By implication the government of the Zadokites would cease to exist.

Some of the teachers who embraced this “unorthodox” Final Judgment were, most likely, former leaders who bore personal grievances against the Zadokites. One of these groups may have come from the Levites, the relatives of the family of Moses, who had been deprived of their historic priesthood by the triumphant Zadokites. They now functioned as assistants to the Zadokites, pushed away from the altar to the choir. Closer to the spirit of the Protest Movement and its warnings of doom—and op-pressed by the loss of their jobs and status—the disgruntled Levites were natural candidates to be leaders of this ideological opposition. As religious propaganda, this vision of a dramatic “end of days” was more powerful than a pedestrian system of little rewards and punishments that did not work.

The last problem of the Zadokites was the plague of interpreters. The Torah, like the Constitution of the United States of America, was a collection of words. The words would mean what the prevailing authority and public opinion would allow them to mean. The idea that a final written document would dispense with disagreement was naïve. Believing in the Bible as an ultimate authority solved no problem, especially if there were three thousand different interpretations of the Bible. Once you had dispensed with prophets, what replaced them were interpreters. The scholar-interpreters, like any supreme court, proceed to tell you “what the text really means.”

The Zadokites could not avoid interpreters. They needed judges to ad-minister the law. Since no human authority could pass any more laws, every new regulation to deal with new circumstances had to be derived from the text of the Torah. Zadokite judges inevitably had to become scholar-interpreters or find scholar-interpreters as consultants. The system became an absurd exercise where most energy was devoted tofinding textual justification for a conclusion that had already been reached—instead of simply seeking the best way to solve the problem.

Most of the judge/interpreters, the soferim (Masters of the Book),* were part of the priestly establishment. With increasing frequency, however, tolerated outsiders were most likely included, simply because hereditary systems decline with time. Thus a new non-hereditary clergy emerged. In time, the judges disagreed on major issues. They formed factions. Some factions were liberal, some conservative—some universalistic, some parochial—some open to the vision of the Final Judgment and some unalterably opposed. The Zadokite government was vulnerable if a compelling issue would assault the establishment.

That issue was created by a new conqueror and a powerful new culture that challenged the culture of the Torah and its Zadokite defenders—the Greeks.