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Ancient Israel - "the kingdom of priests"

Reader comment on item: Not Stealing Palestine but Purchasing Israel
in response to reader comment: Ancient Israel

Submitted by Ianus (Poland), Jun 28, 2011 at 17:03

Dear Moshe ,

Thanks a lot for your reply. You wrote :

" your comments regarding "the ancient Jewish theocracy" which according to you created all the problems in the last Jewish Kingdom (2nd Temple) must be based mostly on biased Christian sagas from the New Testament. The Jewish states were never run by priests and prophets, neither during the 1st Temple nor during the 2nd Temple."

I am afraid we disagree on this fundamental point. From the very beginning to its bloody end in the 1st c. A.D. ancient Israel was a priest-ridden theocracy.Through various means and over a long period of time the priestly caste of the Levites managed to monopolize religion for themselves and in particular the service in the Temple,referring to this monopoly accumulated enormous wealth and privileges and so over the heads of the political leadership gained total control over the minds of the ancient Jews.They imposed upon them a value system and worldview that guaranteed power and privileges for them and made any opposition to them dangerous or futile.And it was no unintended side effect of Moses' monotehism and/or nepotism at all.

This conclusion is not based on hostile Christian or Hellenic tradition at all as you imply. It is clearly stated and developed in the Old Testament. It is defined as Yawhe's command in Exodus 19.6-8 (Yahwe speaking) : " "And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation"... And all the people answered together, and said, "All that the lord hath spoken we will do." "

Now the term "kindgom of priests" is rather a good equivalent of "priest-ridden theocracy", I guess. And as to the "holiness" of this "kingdom of priests" , just a glimpse into many cruel Mosaic laws or the tortuous history of ancient Israel shows that there was a discrepacy between the declared "holiness" and the daily life in this "kingdom of priests".

What I see in the Old Testament (leaving apart its myths and unverifiable metaphysical claims) is a constant struggle of this priestly caste first with other pretenders to the role of intermediaries between god(gods) and humans.The first act of this struggle is the massacre of the followers of the so called "Golden Calf", which incidentally was the work of Moses' brother himself who was (of course) not punished at all : Exodus 32.26-28

"Then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, Who is on the Lord's side, let him come unto me. And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together unto him. And he said unto them, Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, Put every man his sword by his side, and go in and out from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbour. And the children of Levi did according to the word of Moses: and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men."

So 3000 religiously "unreliable" Jews were wiped out with a single stroke and the rest were terrorized into obeying Yahwe, i.e. the Levites, who turned out to be quite ruthless executioners when their class interests were visibly endangered.

But the struggle with the inner religious enemy was only one of three fronts( I leave aside the struggle within the Levite class itself which was also intense) in which the priestly caste was engaged.They waged a bitter war on "foreign gods" or "idololatry" as well.One crass example is the massacre of the Baal priests by Elijah mentioned in more details below. And finally they also contested and fought for polical power.They stood in constant conflict or tension with any political leader that tried to be independent of them. Clear indications of this struggle are scattered across the Old Testament. Whoever obeyed the priests is privileged with their praise as "guided by the Lord" etc. . Whoever opposed their ambitions is denounced as "betraying the Lord". Behind all these doubtful phrases stood concrete corporate interests of the priesthood .

The movement of the prophets is in this context a very interesting thing.On the whole they seem to me to be tools in the hands of the clever priests in the struggle for or against the given political power.True, they don't appear to belong to the privileged caste,sometimes even mildly criticize it, and yet with their voice of criticism of the existing regime,morals and calls for the return to the "true religion" they do with other means what the priests used to do with their intrigues,rumours or curses or worse.

Be as it may, as a well-organized, powerful and knowledgeable force with mighty instruments of influencing and directing the public in whatever direction it suited them, the Levites finally managed to win all those three conflicts creating ancient Judaism as we know it up to the final expulsion under Emperor Hadrian.

But the ancient Jews paid a very heavy price for the theological utopia implanted in their minds by the Levites.They were estranged from and antagonized by the wider polytheistic environment.They took literally the myths and wild promises the priests told them.They literally believed that Yahwe would send a Messiah who would destroy the Roman siege engines and defeat the invincible legions marching against them.When one reads about the atmosphere among the Jews before the last two uprisings under Vespasianus/Titus and Hardian one can't resist the impression they totally lost any contact with reality.And it is only the final disaster of the expulsion from their homeland that made them sober and restored a sense of proportions to them.

> If anything,the prophets were always trying to better and elevate the social ethics of the kings and of the corrupt administrations,but they were never in control; all they could do was to preach.<

You underestimate the ancient Levites and their might , my friend. By controlling the minds they controlled everything and their control was absolute.I mentioned the story of Ahab and Elijah and the sacrifice at mount Carmel.You remember it, don't you? Elija said to Ahab "Now therefore send, and gather to me all Israel unto mount Carmel, and the prophets of Baal four hundred and fifty, and the prophets of the groves four hundred, which eat at Jezebel's table. (1 Kings 19.40) and what happened after the grotesque and dubious sacrifice contest?

"And Elijah said unto them, Take the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape. And they took them: and Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon, and slew them there." ( Kings 1, 19.40)

Now if I can defy the king,set the whole society upon him,organize a massacre of 450 "prophets of Baal' that came with his beloved foreign wife and he can't arrest me or wipe me out on the spot, then who has real control and power in the state ?

With the weakening and demise of political power the power of the theocratic class rose and rose until it became absolute.I don't want to be repetitive but I must say again that it is the unswerving and fanatical belief in those theocratic elite and its wild stories that made the ancient Jews provoke and rebel against the biggest military empire of the ancient world.And yet Rome's policy was based on tolerance - co-opting gods of conquered nations to their pantheon and letting people believe what they wanted as long as nobody defied the political domination of Rome. Yet this is exactly what the Jews did in their naive belief that their religious utopia would win a war against the reality.

I agree it's sad but as Plato used to say : Most problems have their origin in a wrong worldview or to use a more current phrase in "wishful thinking".


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