Simchat Torah begins tonight at sundown. In the spirit of Simchat Torah, I decided to outline the reformations of Torah and Temple from David to Ezra in the Bible. I had an idea that I might discover there some principles of the value of Torah (and all scripture) for society.
The kings (and one priest) whose reformations I outlined include: David, Asa, Jehoshaphat, Joash, Hezekiah, Josiah, and Ezra (with Nehemiah). The good kings were all in Judah (the closest thing to a good king in Israel was Jehu). There were a few more good kings besides the ones I included (I omitted Amaziah, Azariah=Uzziah, and Jotham) but these few did not lead a major reform effort. I followed the accounts in Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah because the focus in these books is Torah and Temple.
The results, I think, are interesting, and relate well to the theme of Simchat Torah: the wonder of God’s self-disclosure to us through the strange literature of the Torah, prophets, and writings (as well as the apostolic scriptures).
I won’t post the entire outline. I’ll just comment on some of the features of these reformations in Judah and say a few things about them.
DAVID (1005-965 BCE)
Shows both respect for Torah and a willingness to innovate, to introduce changes to fit a new situation.
He built a new tent for the Ark (1 Chr 15:1). Why? Perhaps the Tabernacle at Gibeon (Nob?) was too beloved to move and perhaps there were two lines of priests and David politically could not replace the Tabernacle. Instead he made a new place for the Ark (which had been removed from the Tabernacle by the Philistines) in Jerusalem as part of this program of reform.
David reformed in many other ways, but most importantly, he innovated, introducing a new occupation for the Levites in the form of music (1 Chr 15:16; 23:24-27). He even lowered the age for entering Levitical service to twenty (a change from Torah which said thirty, Numb 4:3, 23, 39, 47) by arguing that the Tent was now stationary and the task of Levites was less burdensome and dangerous.
Contrast David’s willingness to innovate with his respect for following Torah to the letter. In 1 Chronicles 15:13 he organizes the Levites to carry the Ark according the ordinances of Exodus saying about the incident of divine punishment in 2 Samuel 6: “we did not care for it in the way that is ordained.” He does not “as Moses commanded” (1 Chr 15:15). In his song he refers to “the word that he commanded, for a thousand generations” and “the law of the Lord which he commanded Israel” (16:15, 40).
Of David we could say that his reformation included both a complete respect for the authority of the scripture and a recognition that scripture adapts to changes in the times.
ASA (908-867 BCE)
Asa was more concerned with Temple and cult than Torah. The instigation for his reforms was the word of a prophet, Azariah ben Oded (2 Chr 15:3). I like what Azariah had to say:
For a long time Israel was without the true God, and without a teaching priest, and without law; but when in their distress they turned to the Lord, the God of Israel, and sought him, he was found by them.
The people had for too long been under Solomon, Rehoboam, and Abijah — without God, without scripture, and without teaching priests. In other words, Azariah ben Oded saw reliance upon written Torah and oral teaching as the way for Judah to have God in their midst.
Asa responded by removing idols, even in some parts of Ephraim, which he had conquered from the northern kingdom of Israel. Interestingly, some people from the northern tribes moved to Judah in Asa’s time, because they wanted to live where God was being honored (2 Chr 15:9).
We might say that for the prophet Azariah, who influenced Asa, relying on scripture was clinging to God. The authority of scripture is the Presence of the divine.
JEHOSHAPHAT (870-846 BCE)
Few people know (at least I didn’t) that this king twice sent Torah-teachers on a campaign throughout the land, bringing Torah to the towns of Judah (2 Chr 17:7-9; 19:4).
We might say that for Jehoshaphat, the teaching of scripture by trained officials was vital to the reformation of Judah.
JOASH (Jehoash, 836-798 BCE)
He restored the ordinances of Torah by which funds were raised for Temple maintenance (census tax, tithes, freewill offerings, 2 Chr 24:8-10). Joash had been hidden by the high priestly family as an infant from his murderous mother, Athaliah, who killed her own children to keep power (2 Chr 22-11-12). But Joash departed from Torah after the high priest died and ended up murdering the high priest’s son (2 Chr 24:22). He was no great reformer.
HEZEKIAH (727-698 BCE)
Here we find the greatest reforming king in Judah’s history. Only Josiah can compare to him. In my opinion, as I am studying Isaiah for the Daily Isaiah commentaries I’m writing this Torah-year, Hezekiah is the fruit of Isaiah’s labors. He is the messianic king par excellence. The reason Isaiah is the most messianic prophet, I have concluded, is to raise up the most messianic king in Judah’s history since David.
In 2 Chronicles 29-31 we read of many reforms by Hezekiah, of Temple and feast and Torah. Most importantly, like David, he valued the music and re-organized the Levites again into musicians and choirs (2 Chr 29:25-30).
Immediately upon taking office he rebuked the priests and Levites and ordered them to purify themselves and the Temple, which happened in the month of Nisan when Passover was supposed to be celebrated (2 Chr 29:4-8).
He cared greatly about the feasts and held a Passover Sheni (a special provision for Passover to be held in the second month when it is impossible in the first) which was the greatest Passover since the days of Solomon (2 Chr 30:26).
Among his many other reforms (I’m not including all of them in this summary) he re-instituted the tithes, firstfruits, offerings, and priestly prebends as well (2 Chr 31:3). Money and resourced were to flow to the Temple, be redistributed to the priests and Levites, and be shared with the needy and defenseless as in the Torah.
About Hezekiah we may say that he loved the Torah and the celebrations, shared resources, and communal feasting commanded there as no king had since the days of Solomon. He made Jerusalem almost as it would be in the Days of Messiah.
JOSIAH (640-609 BCE)
On the same level as Hezekiah, but with his life cut short tragically, Josiah began to reform and all the more did so after a Torah scroll was found in the Temple.
About the finding of the Torah: it is hard to know exactly what is meant by the story in 2 Chr 34:14. Obviously the knowledge of Hashem, of sacrificial and cultic regulations, of the ban on idolatry, and many other Torah concerns had not been lost. Was it simply that a special scroll of Torah (a Temple copy) though other copies had remained with the priests and Levites all along? Was it that part of the Torah was in existence but that some other part was found? Were the Exodus narratives and priestly codes existent but Deuteronomy had been lost? The story is mysterious.
Even before the scroll was found in the Temple by Hilkiah, Josiah was destroying idols and altars, burning idol priests, and doing so as far north as Naphtali in ruined Israel, long since wrecked by Assyria (2 Chr 34:3-7).
After the scroll was found, Josiah, who had been repentant on first hearing it read, gathered elders and priests and all the people, least to greatest, at a major assembly, where he read Torah (2 Chr 34:29-30). Perhaps we should assume that Josiah himself read it at the great assembly. He made a covenant to keep all the mitzvot and made the people agree with stand with him in the covenant (2 Chr 34:31-32).
We also find something strange: he restored the Ark to the Temple (2 Chr 35:3). Where had it gone? One theory is that during the dark times of idolatry the priests had removed it either to protect it (a pious theory) or because they replaced it with idols (a realistic-pessimistic theory).
We might say of Josiah that he was zealous for Torah but became all the more so when a copy of some part of Torah was found in the Temple. Hearing the Torah made him tear his clothes (2 Chr 34:29) and he resolved to read it to the great assembly of all Israel and Judah. Even more so than in Hezekiah’s time, the scripture itself was the basis of this reform.
EZRA (arrived in Jerusalem 458 BCE)
Ezra was said to be “skilled in the Torah of Moses which Hashem God of Israel had given” (Ezr 7:6). He was a priest commissioned by Artaxerxes of Persia to return to Jerusalem and command all the officials and priests in a Temple-Torah reformation (Ezr 7:21). The full weight of Persian law and punishment was behind his reform (7:25-26).
He brought all the Temple vessels with him (8:33) and led the men of Israel in divorcing their foreign wives (10:11). I have always felt that God was not necessarily on Ezra’s side in this last matter (the voice of God is not heard).
Then when Nehemiah was governing and rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, sometime around 435 BCE, there was a great assembly at the Water Gate at which Ezra the scribe (and also priest) read the Torah publicly (Neh 8:1-3) and interpreters translated and expounded in Aramaic (8:8) — which is thought to be the origin of the Targums (Aramaic paraphrases of the Bible).
And much as Hezekiah and Josiah had revived the full feast week of Passover, Ezra and Nehemiah revived the feast of Sukkot (Neh 8:13-18). There is some sense, perhaps it was the number of people dwelling in booths, in which such a Sukkot had not been held since the days of Joshua (8:17).
So we may say of Ezra that he represents a new kind of official, combining courtly scribal skills with priestly skills in the study and dissemination of Torah. The teaching office of the priests had long been commanded, but the Babylonian and Persian culture affected the way the scribal office related to religion. And with Ezra the emphasis on written Torah, publicly read Torah, and translated Torah increased. In his book on the Pentateuch, Joseph Blenkinsopp notes that it was Persian policy for the provinces to be governed by their own traditional law-codes and religions. Ezra represents a step closer to the modern Jewish office of scribe or rabbi-judge presiding over the Torah.
CONCLUDING THOUGHTS ABOUT TORAH AND REVIVAL
It seems to me there are three foundations of faithfulness to God: belief, cult, and practice. For those not used to the word “cult” used in this sense, it means manner of worship.
The reformations of the kings of Judah and of Ezra the scribe-priest concern belief and cult. Because the nation was so far from God and from Torah, there was far too little of the third part which is practice. I take the kind of practice God desired to be evident from the prophets. A key text would be Isaiah 1:16-17, which I quote here in my own translation:
Wash! Become clean! Remove the perverseness of your deeds from before my eyes! Cease doing evil! Learn to do kindness! Seek justice! Set straight the oppressor! Adjudicate for the orphan! Contend for the widow!
This third area is essential. It is the main thing God is looking for. So why are the reformations about belief (Torah) and cult (Temple practice)? The people were so behind in their progress in the way of God, the reformers were always trying to get the easier two foundations in place. It was the prophets who preached about the third foundation.
What does all this say about scripture and authority? The history of reformations in Israel and Judah indicate that right belief (Torah, scripture) comes from the authority of God. That authority in some manner comes through a text and is expressed in teaching. The authority of scripture is the authority of God, but interpretation is required. Innovation is possible, even necessary. The authoritative word is not directly equated with the text (as if it were propositions) but comes from wise use of the text and this is not achieved by individuals, but by a community.
More importantly, these reformations in Israelite history tell us that when all Israel keeps Torah, the world changes. Scripture is more than authoritative. It is a beautiful blueprint for social change that brings the Messianic Era. If ancient Israel kept Torah, spiraling toward its higher aspirations of increasing righteousness, it would have been like the world to come. If Israel and the Righteous of the Nations were to keep the Torah (in the sense that much of Torah applies to the Nations although not all), we would see the Days of Messiah come quickly. Scripture is not about personal piety, but communal and social change under the leadership of God and Messiah.
While there were kings in Judah, the messianic dream was near. After exile, there were no kings and Ezra’s reformation was less messianic than Hezekiah’s or Josiah’s. Ezra could never have been Messiah, but Hezekiah and Josiah could have been. Thus, we live in the scribal age while we wait. But the dream of all Israel and the Nations keeping Torah in its fullest sense remains.