Thursday, October 15, 2009

6) Israel and the nations

The fact that the period of the Second Temple was inaugurated by a Gentile king, Cyrus the Achaemenian, is hardly appreciated while in fact can’t be overrated. While the “times of the Gentiles”, that is their political dominion over Israel, are headed by Babylonia’s King Nebukadnezzar – the golden head in Prophet Daniel’s vision – the Second Temple had within the frame of these “times of the Gentiles” three main functions:

* to manifest and guarantee Israel’s dependence on the

Lord God of the Fathers, and spiritual –not necessarily

political- independence from the nations;

* thus to retain Israel’s function as the Lord’s witness

among the nations;28

* the turning towards, and opening up to, the nations in order to prepare them, too, for the eventual fulfillment of the vision of peace expounded by the Prophets, foremost Isaiah and Zechariah.

This opening to the nations necessitated, on the other hand, the implementation of stricter rules for the own people in order to avoid assimilation and disintegration.

For instance, till the end of the First Temple, strangers who agreed, or wanted, to join the people of Israel, were simply accepted. Examples are:

Potiphera, daughter of an Egyptian priest, married to Joseph;

Zipporah, daughter of a Midian priest, married to Moses;

The “mixed multitude” who joined in Israel’s exodus from Egypt;

Rahab of Jericho “who dwells in Israel unto this day”;

Ruth the Moabite lady, an ancestor of King David;

King Solomon's foreign wives.

In contrast, Ezra and Nehemiah stressed now family purity.29 Foreigners could not anymore simple join Israel. The Samaritans who wanted to do so, were rejected, as we saw. On the other hand, we are told that “many of the people of the land(s of Persia) became Jews"30, that is, were accepted into the fold in a process of guided conversion. This may well mark the inception of that process of official conversion known as ,גיור (gueeyoor). But conversion was to remain the exception. The Gentiles were not – and are not – expected to convert. The sages developed the concept that during the “times of the Gentiles” it is upon the latter, individuals as well as nations, to abide by the minimum restrictions of the “Seven Laws of the Sons of Noah” (Noahide Laws, in short).31

Personal prayers which were typical for King David and the Prophets as well as for the common people of Israel,32 were more and more superceded by standardized community prayers, foremost the obligatory Shemonah Esreh (the “18 benedictions”).

All these regulations as well as others, required an elaborate codification, or regulation, of the Jewish customs. In this wake, the Persian term dat, law, was adopted, even became a basic concept. However, in order to balance its severity and yet to upkeep Israel’s peculiarity, the Men of he Great Assembly enjoined: “Be moderate in (the application of) justice… and make a fence for the Torah”.33

While that be so, we should yet be aware of the fact that the Persian Kings, foremost Cyrus and Artaxerxes (mentioned above) went much beyond the requirements of the “Seven Noahide Laws”, and thus set a standard still to be emulated: They acknowledged the “God of Israel” and His Torah also in regard of Israel’s connection to her land. In that, they adhered also to Noah’s charge after the Flood(Gen. 9:26,27):
“Blessed be the God of S(h)em,

and Yephet shall live in the tents of S(h)em…”

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