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Legalism Triumphant

( Originally Published 1916 )

In the year 520 B.C. a prophet, Haggai, roused the people of Jerusalem to undertake the rebuilding of their temple, which had lain in ruins since the destruction of Jerusalem in 586.

Eighteen years had passed since Cyrus captured Babylon and applied to the deported peoples whom he found there the liberal and clement policy of allowing them to re-establish their national worships in their own lands. Very few of the Jewish exiles had as yet ventured the long and hard journey back to Judea and the more difficult renewal of life in their devastated land. Zerubbabel, the prince of the royal line, had come back as local governor, and Joshua, of the line of Aaron, as priest. With them had come, no doubt, some little company, but it is to the people of the land rather than to returned exiles that Haggai addresses himself. Already homes have been built amid the ruins of the city, but neither city wall nor temple has been restored.

Soon Zechariah adds his appeal to that of Haggai. With symbolic visions that recall those of Ezekiel he supplements the plain and stirring speech of the other.

The resources of the community were as nothing in comparsion with those which Solomon had had at his disposal four hundred and fifty years before. Doubtless the old stone still lay in confusion about the temple mount near at hand. The timber portions of the ancient structure had, however, been destroyed by fire when Nebuchadrezzar laid the city waste. The builders soon grew discouraged as they saw how imperfect a restoration of the old temple it would be possible for them to make. Ezekiel had pictured the former temple rebuilt and surrounded with courts on a much more elaborate scale than those about Solomon's temple. The reality proved a sad contrast to the remembered glory of the former structures and to the glowing hope of Ezekiel. Yet the people labored on and in four years completed their work. With all the resources of the united kingdom of Israel and the co-operation of the king of Tyre, Solomon's temple had required seven years for its building.

The sacrificial ritual of the new temple must have fallen as far short of Ezekiel's ardent vision as the building itself. The prophet Malachi gives a scathing picture of the worship of the people a little later. Haggai had promised that the precious things of all nations would come to fill the house with glory; Zechariah had assured them that the sin of the nation had been expiated in the exile and that now the divine grace would perpetually supply the lamp of the temple through the anointed prince and priest. The years since the completion of the temple have dragged for a half-century and more; Jerusalem has remained thinly populated, unwalled, and unprotected, the byword of petty neighboring peoples once subject to its rule. The great mass of the descendants of the exiles have found it more comfortable to remain in Babylonia, where many of them have gained success in the commercial life of that wealthy portion of the Persian Empire.

Malachi finds the discouraged little community of Jerusalem sure that evildoers are blessed of God, or asking scornfully, Where is the God of justice ?

They maintain, it is true, the semblance of worship at the temple, bringing to the altar their blind, lame, and sick animals, such as they would never dare offer as tribute to their governor. Instead of carrying out Ezekiel's ideals of rigid exclusion of all foreigners from the temple, the people of the Jerusalem community have found it advantageous to intermarry with the daughters of their pagan neighbors, even divorcing their Jewish wives in order to make these alliances.

The picture is a disheartening one, and when news of these conditions reaches a Jew of the east who has risen to high and favored position in the household of the Persian monarch, he is stirred to the depths of his nature. This truly great man, Nehemiah, has told us in a beautiful little memoir how he obtained permission of Artaxerxes to visit Palestine, with authority, as governor, to rebuild the city walls and received a requisition on the keeper of the king's forest for the timber needed.

It was quite impossible for the little community centering in Jerusalem to keep itself free from foreign intermixture and to observe fully its distinctive religious practices while the city lay open for all who wished to enter. Under the able leader-ship of Nehemiah, who proved a most efficient organizer of the workers, the walls were erected in a surprisingly brief time. The jealous neighboring peoples looked with deep anxiety upon the efforts which might make Jerusalem once more the military and political capital of all Palestine. Their plots to get possession of Nehemiah or to discredit him in the eyes of his fellow-countrymen were very shrewdly conceived, but one who had risen to a position of trust at the court of an oriental empire, though he was singularly simple-hearted and direct by nature, had Iearned how to deal with all kinds of conspiracy.

When the walls were completed and gates set up that could be opened and closed at will, it became possible to enforce Sabbath cessation of trade, even excluding the foreign fish peddlers who had been wont to come on that day. Sabbath rest had been a marked characteristic of Hebrew religious observance in pre-exilic days; the codes from the earliest of Exodus, chapter 34, to Deuteronomy had all made provision for the day of rest. In the time of Amos the merchants observed the new moons and Sabbaths with cessation of selling, however eager they might be to get back to their dishonest trade.

During the exile, when the sacrifices that Deuteronomy had limited to the Jerusalem temple ceased, the Sabbath could still be observed in Babylonia. From the exile onward this day became, among the orthodox Jews, a more and more prominent and cherished institution. But the degenerate Judeans of Nehemiah's time apparently cared little for its sanctity; when the governor came back after a return to Persia, he found the works of agriculture and marketing freely practiced on the seventh day. The strenuous measures of reform which he undertook seem to have been efficacious for the time, and for the future as well. Two and a half centuries later there were whole companies of pious Jews who would die rather than resist attack on the sacred day.

The rebuilding of the walls made possible also social separation of Israel from her neighbors, marriage with whom Malachi had so strongly condemned. Nehemiah even drove out of the community the grandson of the high priest who had married the daughter of Sanballat the Horonite.

Wise provision against the shabby worship which Malachi had vividly pictured was made in Nehemiah's requirement of a regular poll tax in support of the temple worship. This he fixed at one-third of a shekel.

Just what part Ezra the scribe played in all this era of the renaissance of Jewish life and worship in Jerusalem is a puzzle. The later historians who combined Nehemiah's diary with records concerning Ezra and other documents, making the ecclesiastical history of Chronicles-Ezra-Nehemiah, placed the ecclesiastic Ezra before the statesman Nehemiah, but all historical probability lies on the side of Nehemiah as the pioneer and Ezra as a representative of the movement which carried forward to fuller development the ideals of Jewish separation, formulated by Ezekiel and capable of realization only after Nehemiah had rebuilt the walls.

While the great majority of the descendants of the Babylonian exiles found a literal return to Palestine undesirable, they did not give up interest in the vision of a restored, purified, and holy state. The work of codifying and developing ritual law, undertaken by Ezekiel and the compilers of the Holiness Code, continued among the priests in Babylonia long after the temple was rebuilt. The ' great results of this labor were the completion of the priestly law book of Leviticus and the committing to writing of a considerable body of kindred laws now found in the narrative of Exodus and Numbers.

All of this legal material was given narrative setting in a new, priestly history of antiquity, parallel to the .old prophetic histories, which now existed in an interwoven narrative. This new history began with a majestic story of creation in which the all-powerful God of the universe, by his spoken word, brought order and light out of chaos and darkness. A beneficent being, he found his creation all very good for man's abode and then he entered upon a Sabbath of rest.

Back of this narrative lay the old Babylonian story of creation, but all wonderfully transformed by the idea of one God, the creator of heaven and earth, an idea which first reached full, conscious expression among the prophets of the exile. This noble account of creation, that culminated in the conception of the Sabbath as an institution observed by God himself, was followed by a barren genealogy of the ten antediluvians. The genealogy served as a connection between the creation and an account of the flood culminating in a covenant between God and Noah.

There follows a genealogy of the sons of Noah which is continued, in the line of Shem, down to Abram. A very brief account of Abram's migration leads up to the covenant of circumcision and the birth of Isaac, with whom God's covenant is to be established. Thus the priestly historians, writing in Babylonia, conceived of the covenant relation with God as having long antedated the meeting at Sinai.

These writers also thought of the most elaborate details of ecclesiastical organization and sacrificial worship as formulated in the wilderness period by Moses, so that they placed the great law codes in their narrative of the times of Moses. All this is quite contrary to the older histories of Israel and the express testimony of the eighth-century prophets. It was inconceivable to the late historians, working at a time and place far separated from the continuity of the early national experience, that the glorious days of Moses could have lacked the full ritual law which seemed to them vital for the pure worship of God. They even transformed the simple tent of meeting, of which the older history spoke as pitched outside the camp, into a veritable portable temple constructed on the model of the finished sanctuary of Solomon.

This latest history with its embodied laws was taken as the basis and framework for a new compilation into which was fitted the combined Judean and Ephraimite history with which Deuteronomy had already been united by the editors of the early exile. The result of this union was the great composite history of antiquity which begins with the creation and extends down through the conquest and ideal allotment of the land, and now exists as the Books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua.

The first five of these books, known as the Torah, "instruction" or "law," became the first canon of Hebrew Scripture with which the prophets and other writings were associated only later, and never on the same level in the general estimation of Judaism. Whether the completed Torah was already brought from Babylon to Jerusalem in the time of Nehemiah or only at a little later date, it certainly was the authoritative standard of the Judean community by about the year 400 B.C. The fact that the rival sanctuary on Mount Gerizim, built for the grandson of the high priest whom Nehemiah "chased from him" because of his foreign marriage, had the Pentateuch would suggest that this was already adopted in Nehemiah's time.

In this post-exilic age circumstances combined to make it necessary to separate the little Judean community by the most rigid religious forms if the people and religion of Yahweh were not to be completely lost in the great mass of peoples that made up the Persian Empire. This condition of things brought it about that the formal, legal side of religion almost completely obscured the great significance of the prophets. We have traced the progress from primitivie childlike ideas of a god who works with material, like a human artificer, who is the god of a tribe or people, to the conception of the creator of heaven and earth. We have seen this a long upward struggle, in which a succession of great prophets participated with the devotion of their lives to the new truth which it was given them to see.

To all this the men of the post-exilic age were quite blind. They had come to think of God as acting by fiat and so as revealing his perfect will for man in law rather than through such experiences as those by which Hosea and Jeremiah had come to know God. When the supreme teacher spoke in Galilee, he taught that God's revelation could not come through unconditional fiat, but must be progressive, limited by man's capacity. Nevertheless, speaking broadly, the conception of revelation which characterized the Jewish priests in Babylonia in the fifth century before Christ continued to control Christian as well as Jewish thinking until men in the nineteenth century began to recognize that, in the divine plan of life, all things unfold slowly and through struggle.

Events subsequent to the adoption of the Torah tended to stamp legalism still more firmly upon Judaism. After the Persian Empire passed under Macedonian rule through the conquests of Alexander, Greek colonies were established in Palestine as throughout his eastern dominions. Now Judaism, already marked by its distinctive and exclusive character, came into daily contact with that other most vital and persistent civilization, Hellenism. In time athletic contests and such gay religious festivals as those of Dionysus drew the young priests and others from the worship of the sanctuary and threatened the moral standards of Judaism, much as the worship of the baals and foreign deities had done in the days of their fathers.

The Jews became divided into the Hellenizers at one extreme, men who favored adoption of Greek customs and general assimilation with the rest of the empire, and the Hasidim at the other extreme, the party of the pious who were willing to die for the maintenance of the rigid standards of their law. Under Alexander's unworthy successors in Syria the high priesthood was awarded by the king to the highest bidder. At length one king, Antiochus Epiphanes, undertook to Hellenize the Jews by force. He made it a capital offense to own a copy of the Law or to circumcise a child. He caused an altar of Zeus to be erected on the altar of Yahweh in the temple court and had swine's flesh offered upon it; all were required, too, to participate in sacrifices to the Greek gods. The Hasidim refused to obey and were martyred with great cruelty; a large company who had fled and hidden in a cave met their death unresistingly because they would not defend themselves on the Sabbath.

Out of persecution sprang, at length, armed revolt. Under the leadership of Judas Maccabeus and his brothers, who survived him in the pro-longed stuggle, little Judah gained independence, which she retained for nearly a century, until the coming of Pompey in 63 B.c. In this period of independence the party of the Hasidim came to be known as the Pharisees, that is, perhaps, separatists. Some of the liberal tendencies of the Hellenizers were perpetuated in the party of the Sadducees, which came to include the chief priests and their followers, while in other respects they were more conservative than the Pharisees. For example, they considered the authoritative revelation of the law as given once for all in the Pentateuch, and refused to recognize the Pharisees' oral development of the law, which came to be the tradition of the elders referred to in Mark 7:3.

The leaders of the Pharisees sought with pathetic devotion to carry out the will of God as prescribed in his law. Since their ideal of religion was the perfect observance of a perfect law that expressed the will of God for man, they must determine in every act of life just how the law was to be applied. Hence the schools of the rabbis, or teachers, were occupied with endless discussion of the application of the laws to this or that conceivable situation.

The field of Pharisaic discussion which is of most general interest to us is that of Sabbath observance. The law that no work shall be done on this day offers difficulties that must be reckoned with by those who purpose to carry out the law to the letter. In time the discussions of the schools were embodied in the Talmud, the "instruction." In this great collection of writings the discussion of what constitutes forbidden work upon the Sabbath fills a considerable volume.

The Sadducees, who were not troubled with scrupulous anxiety to observe the law perfectly, found this additional material quite superfluous and the law of the Pentateuch all-sufficient.

Jesus, who saw in the whole conception of religion as law the nemesis of life, showed in scathing words the evil and folly of a legalism that patiently tithed garden herbs and neglected the weightier matters of justice, mercy, and faith.

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