Israel’s Identity and Forces of Group Cohesion in the Postexilic Period

When we now concentrate on the question of which factors, media, modes, and symbolizations are used as resources for the constituting of the community, we need to ask about the forces of group cohesion. Here, it is not enough only to refer to God, for the reference to a deity is without alternative in the Ancient near East. The whole cosmos is interpreted in a religious way. The differences and commonalities of the various concepts in the Old Testament become clear only when all further factors, media, modes, and symbolizations are taken into consideration.

See Also: Prayers and the Construction of Israelite Identity (Society of Biblical Literature, 2019).

By Maria Häusl
Professor for Biblical Studies at the Technical University of Dresden,
Research Associate at the Department of Old Testament Studies,
University of Pretoria, South Africa
May 2019

Israel’s identity has been discussed extensively and in detail by Hebrew Bible / Old Testament scholars. For the postexilic period alone, upon which I will concentrate in the following, the research in the past years has been highly reflective (e.g. Baumann 2012, Becking 2011, Ben Zvi/Edelman 2014, Knoppers/Ristau 2009, Korte 2015). It has employed sociological models (Giesen 1999, Stichweh 2010) and has investigated various “identity markers” such as Sabbath (Grund 2011), circumcision (Grünwaldt 1992) or Torah observance (Rothenbusch 2012), as well as different groups (Haarmann 2008, Hausmann 1987, Hensel 2016, Knoppers 2013). Special attention has been given to the mixed marriage problem (Frevel 2011, Southwood 2012).

            Nevertheless, I consider the concept of “identity” to be problematic, because of the accompanying “othering”. A homogeneity of groups is presupposed that in this form does not exist. Instead, one must assume overlaying identity markers and various groups that can be apprehended better with the concept of belonging. We know about the provinces of Jehud and Samaria, about the JHWH-worshipping population in Jehud that was not in exile, about exiles who returned to Jehud, about the JHWH-worshipping population in the province of Samaria, about diaspora groups in the eastern Babylonian area, in Egypt, and on the island of Delos who worship JHWH in Jerusalem or on the Garizim, or who cultivate contacts to Samaria and Jerusalem, and about other ethnic groups that live either in Jehud or Samaria.

            While the concept of identity designates the self-understanding of a group, and the concept of belonging makes clear that human beings are members of overlapping groups, a functioning community also needs a social order. One can call this aspect the constituting of the community (Vorländer 2013). For this reason, the postexilic texts reflect not only the various self-understandings and instances of belonging, but also testify to the discourse about the constituting of a postexilic community and also about the resources employed for this purpose (Häusl 2018).

            In the following, I will concentrate on the resources for the constituting of the postexilic community in Jerusalem. I will clarify my thoughts by using examples from Isaiah 40-66 and the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah (BEN) (Berges 2017, Häusl 2017a). The later texts of the Book of Isaiah (above all in Isa 56-66) advocate the model of an “inclusive exclusivity” that ties belonging to ethical criteria (doing of right and righteousness) as well as to the observance of the Sabbath. Thereby, on the one hand, a part of Israel is excluded as wicked and, on the other hand, people from the foreign nations are included (Berges 1998). In BEN, an “exclusive inclusivity” is advocated (Rom-Shiloni 2013), in which Israel is defined as an ethnic (-religious) group. One belongs to Israel on the basis of geographical origin or ancestry in Israel, while the “people of the (foreign) lands” do not belong to Israel.

            When we now concentrate on the question of which factors, media, modes, and symbolizations are used as resources for the constituting of the community, we need to ask about the forces of group cohesion. Here, it is not enough only to refer to God, for the reference to a deity is without alternative in the Ancient near East. The whole cosmos is interpreted in a religious way. The differences and commonalities of the various concepts in the Old Testament become clear only when all further factors, media, modes, and symbolizations are taken into consideration. Along with God as the central resource, the recourse to traditions or to a common ethos makes it possible to distinguish whether a common origin/ancestry and history or common convictions and attitudes are used constitutively. Space and time are basic constituents in the perception and construction of the world. However, space does not exist simply as a given factor, but rather is (socially) constructed. Time, as “filled” time, likewise contains a social quality. For a community, “memory” and “future” are of essential significance.


The Books of Ezra/Nehemiah: Memory and Sanctification

In BEN, the following central and meaningful forces for group cohesion can be identified. The past and the tradition are underlined by explicit references to them, such as the formula “as it is written” and textual citations (Häusl 2011). The Temple of Jerusalem it is rebuilt precisely at its old location and the continuity with the Temple before its destruction is guaranteed through the Temple vessels. But, Ezra 1-6 also reveals innovative elements in regard to the Temple. For, the builder of the Temple is the Persian king and, thus, a foreign ruler. And, although the Temple in Jerusalem is considered as the only legitimate place for the worship of JHWH, statements on the uniqueness of the Jerusalem Temple are lacking. In the overall composition of BEN, the Temple appears as only one factor. For, in the second section, Ezra 7-Neh 13, Jerusalem as a “Holy City”, and the Torah are added as further resources.

            The speech about God likewise is marked by references to the past. JHWH is the Lord of History, and God remembers His people. With the exception of Ezra 1:1, where JHWH awakens Cyrus’ spirit, God does not make an active appearance on the level of the narration. God acts much more through and in prayers (Häusl 2019). In the prayers, God appears as one who acts, and, with the help of the prayers, all decisive initiatives and actions are attributed to God. Whether in the past or in the present, God’s memory is always central. God remembers His covenant with His people and His promises (Neh 1:8); God punishes the transgressions of the enemies (Neh 3:36, 37; Neh 6:14) as well as those of His people (Neh 9:27, 30), and God rewards the good (Neh 13:14, 22, 29, 31).

            The memory of God’s people, in addition, is a constitutive element in the text of Neh 8-10, in which the Torah stands at the center of the focus. The essential performative act of the prayer in Neh 9:6-37 is remembrance, and takes place when the stages of its own history from Genesis (beginning with Abraham) to the Book of Judges are named (e. g., Boda 1999). The conclusion of a contract in Neh 10 is staged as a conclusion of the covenant on Sinai with the contract document in Neh 10:31-40 appearing as written Torah (Häusl 2015). Torah and remembrance, though, are also used innovatively in Neh 8-10. For, the text of the contract in Neh 10:31-40 does not quote from the Pentateuch, but rather formulates its own “new” standards: prohibition on exogamy, sanctification of the Sabbath, observance of the Year of Jubilee, and the provision of the Temple.

            These obligations function as sanctification, the provision of the Temple, the Year of Jubilee, and Sabbath observance, describe a sanctification inwards and the prohibition on exogamy a sanctification outwards (Häusl 2013a). The concept of sanctification inwards also underlies residence in the “Holy City” of Jerusalem in Neh 11, which is interpreted as the gift of the tithe. Sanctification outwards is advocated prominently in Ezra 9-10, where mixed marriages are interpreted as the mixing of the holy seed.


Isaiah 40-66: Righteousness and the Future in God

In the texts in Isa 40-66, God is the central and essential constitutive resource. Many texts are shaped as efficacious divine speech; all initiatives flow from God, and God is the sovereign actor, efficacious in creation and history. In Isa 40-55, various figures are designated as God’s instruments: the Persian King Cyrus, the Suffering Servant, the city(woman) of Jerusalem, in Isa 56-66, God acts without any help.

            In Isa 40-55 the future is as constitutive element delimited specifically from the past (Schmidt 2012). In the juxtaposition of “no longer” and “but now”, the past serves as a negative background, against which a new, good future contrasts positively. Thus, the past is described either as a time of need, or traditions are received as surpassing the past, for example when the Exodus is surpassed in a new Exodus, or the action of God in history is transformed into God’s action of creation.

Although there are also texts directed toward the past in Isa 56-66, such as the self-recrimination in Isa 59:9-15b as well as the penitential prayer in Isa 63:7-64:11, the future as a foundation resource is held onto with Isa 65:16b-66:24 when God creates a new Heaven and a new earth. This new Heaven and new earth are created alone by God and they surpass the old creation. Since the future time does not yet exist, the new Heaven and the new earth depend totally and completely upon God. God is the only guarantee for the future. This future, however, is not created in the “utopian” space and Zion/Jerusalem plays an important role. The texts do not concentrate on the Temple, but rather on the city, which is described, in the view of the nations, as a center of the world and, in the view of its inhabitants and God, as a city woman in relation to her children and as a mediator with the deity. The city comes into view as an advocate and as a living space, as a place of the good life for all, and finally Jerusalem is a symbol for righteousness. The city is open in principle to everyone, also to the people from the nations. For, belonging is not bound to descent or origin, but rather to the doing of right and righteousness.

            The concept of righteousness is used constitutively for the community (Gärtner 2017). Righteousness means in Isa 40-66 “a relationship based on God, ordained through God, and, also in the interpersonal area, shaped by God” (Witte 2012).


A Comparison of Ezra/Nehemiah and Isa 40-66

In a comparison of the constitutive resources, three larger differences catch the eye. BEN and the Isaiah texts use different aspects of time as constitutive. While Isaiah mostly argues by making use of the future, BEN refers explicitly to the past. Common to both bodies of text is the fact that they both use former traditions. The Isaiah texts, however, do not explicitly show their reception of the traditions, while explicit references in BEN are an important element for the addressees of BEN, as well as for those acting in the narrated world. In Isa 40-66, the past is employed often only for demarcation or as a negative background, which is surpassed by the future. The guarantee for continuity, or for the New that is yet to come, is God alone. The reference to the past or the explicit reference to traditions in BEN does not mean, however, that this concept is backward-looking. This concept, too, is innovative and shapes the present. The two concepts differ in the fact that BEN does not clearly name the innovations and the New, while the Isaiah texts speak explicitly about the future, but conceal the continuity.

            The dependence upon tradition in BEN is reflected, even more than in the explicit citations, in the fact that the Torah is considered the central constitutive resource, while for the Isaiah texts the Torah, which appears as “Torah on Zion”, is of secondary significance in relation to other constitutive resources. Herein is the second difference. In the Isaiah texts, the word of God claims the highest authority. The word of God is given constantly (Isa 59:21), to it falls the function of formulating constitutive elements for the community. In BEN, on the other hand, the decisive guarantee for the foundation of the community is the Torah. Its authority is manifested in the references to it and in the person of the scribe Ezra, who teaches the Torah as an expert (Neh 8) and introduces it into the decision-making process in the assembly (Ezra 9, 10). In Neh 8-10, finally, the community constitutes itself as a Torah learning community and commits itself to the Torah. In the comparison of the concept of the word of God and the Torah concept, the Torah concept places more value on remembrance and learning.

            The two terms of sanctification and righteousness mark the third decisive difference. The decisive difference between BEN and Isaiah is to be seen in the delimiting sanctification outwards of BEN. For, in the cosmos-spanning, righteous order of Isaiah texts all human beings are included. The access to the community stands open to all the righteous. But, sanctification and righteousness display commonalities. For both describe a quality of God, have in mind the relationship of the human being to God as well as to each other, and, thus, serve the justification of ethical standards of the inward communal life: social balance, debt remission. A social/cultic standard is also shared in the keeping of the Sabbath. While these standards, though, are reinforced in BEN with a conclusion of a covenant and are justified with reference to the Torah, this occurs in the Isaiah texts through reference to righteousness and creation. With this creation-based argumentation, an opening to the human beings from among the peoples, is possible.

            On the basis of this conceptual difference, space, too, is focused upon in a different way. In both concepts, the city of Jerusalem is of great significance, a fact that finds expression in many common themes: going up to the city/the Temple in Jerusalem; offerings for the city/the Temple; reconstruction of the city and the repopulation of it. In BEN, the city is the symbol for the political community, the space for the festivals of the cultic calendar and residence in the city is interpreted as an offering to the deity. In the Isaiah texts, Jerusalem possesses a mediating function between the population and the deity. As the city woman, it is an identification figure, and a figure symbolic of righteousness.

            Thereby, in conclusion, we come to speak once again about the chief constitutive resource of “God”. In both concepts, God appears as the Lord of Heaven, as Creator, and as the Lord of History. In BEN, God acts on the level of the narration in a mediated (in the prayers) and indirect (for example, through the Persian kings) way. Most important is the idea that God remembers His covenant with the people and, in this way, remains true to His people. In the Isaiah texts, on the other hand, God is the chief actor, if not even the only actor. He is as Creator of a new Heaven and a new earth less the guarantor of continuity than much more the guarantor for the future.

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