Thursday, December 10, 2009
Salvation in Post-Exilic Judaism
I am currently doing research on both 1 Esdras and Judith for two different projects. Along the way, I am very interested in the soteriology of both documents and what they have to say about "salvation" in post-exilic Judaism.
In 1 Esdras, salvation is primarily seen in the successful (albeit problematic) return of the exiles to Judah to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple. A soteriological summary of 1 Esdras could be made with the words “we obtained mercy” (1 Esdr 8:53) where the returning exiles stress their reliance on God in prayer for deliverance during their sojourn to Jerusalem. At two key points in the narrative God is extolled for his mercy (1 Esd 8:53; 8:75) as he preserved the nation in the slavery of exile and enabled them to make a safe journey despite all the perils back in the land of Judea. At the beginning of the story the sin of the nation and its leaders is highlighted (e.g., 1:22, 32-55), yet God’s mercy returns in the decree of Cyrus (1:1-7), the triumph of Zerubbabel (4:59-63), and the call of Ezra (8:1-7). In the midst of the wickedness of the people and priests (1:47), God send them a messenger (i.e., Jeremiah) to call them because “he was trying to spare them and his dwelling place” (1:48), and yet this is met with their mockery and scoffing that earns God’s anger (1:49-50). It is clear that in 1:47-49 shows how God’s mercy is sandwiched between the impiety and hard heartedness of the people even if it is not efficacious. Nonetheless, even judgment can be worked ultimately for redemptive purposes and the exile is not meant to be permanent (1:55). Towards the end of the story, in Ezra’s penitential prayer (8:71-87), there is recognition that God has been faithful and merciful to his people in that he preserved them in exile, brought them back into the land, left them with a “root”, and continues preserves them with sustenance in their current state; although the people have sinned like their forefathers by intermarrying with foreigners since returning to the land. That in turn leads to contrition among the people, to the rectification of their misdeeds, and the offering of the appropriate sacrifices (8:88–9:20). In sum, 1 Esdras narrates the story of how a people who are “in” but who have violated God’s law take steps in response to their transgression (see Enns 2001: 75). It is in response to their experience of divine mercy, the exiles take measured steps to prevent any further catastrophe of divine judgment through a strenuous emphasis on separation from the nations, concerted efforts to rebuild the temple and Jerualem, and they attempt to reconstitute the body of exiles into a Torah-observant Judean society. Despite the nation’s manifold sin, both pre- and post-exile, the book focuses on how God did not completely forsake the nation. The initiative for the return from exile is attributed exclusively to God and not due to any prayer or petetiton by pious exiles. Yet preservation in the land appears to be contingent upon rebuilding Judean life in accordance with the Law of Moses (8:21-24; cf. 1:31; 5:50; 8:7, 84, 90; 9:37-50). All in all, 1 Esdras exemplifies the pattern of religion called “covenantal nomism” where God’s grace precedes the act of obedience that follows. Enns (2001: 77) aptly summarizes: “We have, in other words, transgression by the people of God, but for which there is a means of rectifying their position before God.
In Judith, there is no reference to divine initiative in bringing the nation out of exile. Instead, there is a big emphasis on the efficacy of prayer, fasting, and self-humiliation as mechanisms that prompt God's saving action to deliver the nation from Nebuchadnezzar (king of Assyria!). Any intervention by God for the nation is noticeably absent from the description of the return from exile: "But when they departed from the way he had prescribed for them, they were utterly defeated in many battles and were led away captive to a foreign land. The temple of their God was razed to the ground, and their towns were occupied by their enemies. But now they have returned to their God, and have come back from the places where they were scattered, and have occupied Jerusalem, where their sanctuary is, and have settled in the hill country, because it was uninhabited (Jdt 5:18-19)". Elsewhere, Judith states that a town on the verge of famine must continue to trust God rather than surrender. She argues that God is an ineffable mystery and that he reveals his salvation as he pleases and purposes (8:15-16). She is confident God will save them because they have not committed idolatry. In the end she exhorts her audience with the words: "Therefore, while we wait for his deliverance, let us call upon him to help us, and he will hear our voice, if it pleases him (Jdt 8:17)". There is a twofold paradox in Judith. First, Judith says that God is "not won over by pleading" (Jdt 8:16), yet the whole narrative assumes the efficacy of prayer to enable God "to hear our voice if it pleases him" (Jdt 8:17). Second, Judith urges the audience to "wait for his deliverance," but in the end she does not herself wait, rather, she acts quickly, decisively, cunningly, and violently to kill Israel's enemy. For those outside of the community, like Achior, salvation is by proselytism as the means by which one joins the "house of Israel" (Jdt 14:10). In the book, God is portrayed as mysterious and able to save, but the actual cause of salvation is the initiative of the people. I hesistate at calling this "legalism," but divine action is de-emphasized and divine initiative is entirely absent. In Judith, salvation is perhaps best achieved through covenantal piety which may or may not evoke God's favor. God’s election, covenant, and relationship with his people are largely assumed, but they are clearly conditional. Salvation is neither automatic nor efficacious. It is due to appropriate ritual appeals, godliness and contrition, obedience, the absence of sin, and merited by pious individuals like Joakim, Achior, Uzziah, and Judith. Overall, deliverance is only possible under the conditions of covenantal obedience which explains why Israel went into exile in the first place (Jdth. 5.18; 8.18).