Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Restoration of Israel (2)

Yesterday I summarized the evidence we have on Jewish expectations regarding a messiah.  Today we move on to the restoration of Israel.
If we only have evidence of some Jews looking for a messianic king, we have more evidence that some Jews were looking for a restored independence from foreign powers.  The two are related, of course, since a restored nation of Israel would need leadership, and an anointed king was a good option!  But there were options other than a king.  For example, throughout the period from Zechariah to Christ, the high priest was the highest political figure in Israel. [3]

And of course Israel did have kings in the century before Christ.  Herod the Great was king, for example.  In fact, Israel was relatively independent (though not completely) from 164-63BC.  When we look at the Jewish literature from the two centuries before Christ, we have to read various comments that look to the restoration of Israel in the light of what was going on at the time.

So the material that appears in the books of 1 Enoch (a book that Jude 14-15 quotes), generally looks to a time when God will remove sinners from Israel and restore it to its former grandeur.  The group that started this collection arguably became the Essenes eventually.  They looked to the purification of Israel, including the eventual purification of the temple, which they saw as defiled by wicked high priests.  We find these themes in the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were arguably produced by Essenes as well.

The Psalms of Solomon, which we mentioned earlier, come from the time after 63BC when the Romans had taken over.  These psalms also look to the restoration of Israel, this time involving the removal and destruction of the Romans.  The revolutionaries who rose from time to time had this same goal in mind.  The sporadic attempts of individuals from time to time would eventually turn into the full blown Jewish War with Rome from AD66-73, in which the Romans destroyed Jerusalem (AD70).

These hopes were no doubt stoked by stories of the Maccabees. In 167BC, a Syrian king defiled the temple and tried to force the Jews not to circumcise or keep the food laws of Leviticus.  In revolt, a family that became known as the "maccabees" (the hammers) conducted a successful guerrilla campaign against the Syrians until, eventually, the Syrians let them continue these biblical practices.  The temple was restored and purified in 164BC, and Jews continue to celebrate this victory with Hanukkah today.

At the time of Christ, this story of individuals who were "zealous for the law" (cf. Rom. 10:2) no doubt inspired many who revolted against Roman rule in Israel, as well as many who hoped a day would come when another Judas Maccabeus would rise.  Indeed, we can see in this story why some would oppose Jesus and Paul, given their lax attitude toward keeping the finer points of the Jewish Law.  We can imagine that the pre-Christian Paul in fact drew some of his intensity from this "conservative" spirit of the age.

So while we cannot say that every Jew of the time was looking for the restoration of Israel, we can say that this expectation did emerge from time to time.  In the two centuries before Christ, the fortunes of Israel rose up and down.  When it was up, there was probably less thought about some dramatic shift of events yet to come.  For those in power, like the Sadducean class sometimes was, there was little need to hope for a messianic movement or change of political leadership.  But for certain Jews at certain times, the theme of God restoring Israel might easily re-emerge.

[3] For a short period of time, from 104-63BC, the high priests also held the title of king.

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