Axial Age Thought
The Jewish People
Possibly the first written record of a Hebrew people dates from approx. 1398 - 1350 BCE where mention is made in the Egyptian el-Amarna letters of a desert-dwelling “Habiru” in the cities of Canaan. As far as we know, these were bands of mercenaries and artisans, independent people regarded by many as part of the underclass.
About 1250 BCE, a group of Caananite refugees fled slavery in Egypt – the Exodus that is celebrated to this day at Passover. In their minds, their God had triumphed over the might of Egypt and allowed Moses to lead his people to safety. The traditional story is that Moses then receives God’s laws on Mount Sinai and brings them down to the people, only to find the Israelites worshipping a golden calf. Moses becomes angry and smashes the tablets on which the laws are written. Admonishing Israel, he returns to the mountain and obtains a new set of tablets which he gives to the people, placing them in the Ark of the Covenant for safekeeping. Thereafter, the Ten Commandments served as a sacred bond between the Israelites and their God.
The Hebrew Bible has several contradictory accounts of which laws the Israelites were given, how many they received, and where and when they got them. This version, above, was recorded at least six centuries later, during the Axial Age.
In around 1225 BCE, under extreme threat from foreign peoples, the tribes united to form the Kingdom of Israel. Three centuries later civil war split Israel into two states, Israel and Judah, that collectively became known as am Yahweh – the people of God. Yahweh was their divine warrior and these were warring times. But, as is typical of pre-Axial societies, the vast majority also turned to other gods for solutions to different problems. King Ahab, under the influence of Jezebel his Queen, allowed Phoenician gods to infiltrate the land, especially the goddess Astarte and Ba’al, the god of harvests. In spite of the admonitions of prophets such as Elijah insisting on the exclusive worship of Yahweh, the Israelites would not become a monotheistic people until the height of their Axial period in the late 6th century BCE.
The Axial-Age Prophets
The early 8th century BCE was a more peaceful time with both states expanding and trade flowing freely between them. The practice of religion was now completely external and superficial, the regular performance of ritualistic obligations and sacrifices the only requirement. Over this period, the rich became extremely so and their good fortune was interpreted as evidence that the divine Yahweh rewards materially those who regularly perform the prescribed ritual obligations. The poor, they claimed, were so because they did not do so and thus they deserved their lot. In reality the poor were exploited by the rich and a corrupt political and legal system made it impossible for them to achieve a better life.
Into this situation entered the prophet Amos, a common man who came from Tekoa not many miles from the city of Jerusalem. Amos made his living raising sheep and sycamore trees and selling them in the market towns and villages of the northern kingdom of Israel. He became deeply troubled by the disparity he saw between the rich and poor and by the way in which political and religious leaders tried to justify it.
Dreams and visions convinced Amos that Israel would collapse as a consequence of its behavior. He saw that Yahweh was not impressed by empty ritual and festivals but instead wanted justice to “flow like water and integrity like an unfailing stream.” He felt that Yahweh would destroy Israel, its king and the lands surrounding Israel. And Israel would suffer the most because the Israelites knew God. Attributing the power of any god beyond its normal territory was an unusual idea at the time. But to Amos, Yahweh was the only god, and not subject to the boundaries of any country, He is the God of all, and His demands are universal and affect all nations.
The prophet Hosea was active 753 - 725 BCE, just a few years later, but by this time Israel’s monarchy was unstable and invasion by Assyrian armies seemed, and was, imminent, only kept at bay by enormous tariffs paid resentfully by the people. Like Amos, Hosea was certain that Yahweh cares nothing at all for ritual services, but for Hosea Yahweh is primarily a God of Love. His power and justice, though essential, are subordinate to His love and mercy. He desires correct understanding and morality from the people who are “destroyed from lack of knowledge.”
To Hosea, Yahweh’s punishments are remedial, not retribution, and as such they are an expression of His love, and used as a last resort to teach lessons that people refuse to learn in any other way. He warns that the people of Israel will be captured, but in captivity will be an opportunity for them to gain a better understanding of Yahweh and how to worship him. From this point on it seems that the Hebrew people understood that Yahweh would never leave them, and that any suffering, tragedy or hardship they encountered was an opportunity for learning.
Hosea’s words imply an individual relationship with Yahweh and a responsibility of the self which is Axial in thinking: “Who is wise, and he shall understand these things? Prudent, and he shall know them? For the ways of the Lord are right, and the just shall walk in them: but the transgressors shall fall therein” (Hosea 14:9). Both saints and sinners must learn that “it is time to seek the Lord” (10:12).
Isaiah was active in Jerusalem in the Southern Kingdom of Judah in the 740s and prophesied for at least 40 years. Although privileged himself, he was, like Amos, an outspoken voice for the common people who were being victimized by the rampant corruption of the ruling class. Like Hosea, Isaiah did not predict the final or complete destruction of the nation as did Amos, but instead saw the Assyrian invasion that conquered Israel in 722 BCE as an inevitable punishment from Yahweh, that would result in a change in the moral leadership of Israel and in an increase in his people’s
The prophecies of Isaiah clearly express Israel’s messianic hope for the first time. The term Messiah means “anointed one,” or one who has been chosen by Yahweh for a specific purpose. In Isaiah’s prophecies, the Messiah is portrayed as an ideal king and judge who will understand the plight of the poor and will ensure that their rights are protected and that they are justly treated. The concept of a coming Messiah took on a number of different meanings during the centuries that followed and became one of the most important
In 597 BCE Nebuchadnezzar the Babylonian king, son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, violently ransacked Judah and took the young king Jehoiachin and 8,000 of his people, including royal and aristocratic families, prisoners to Babylon. Babylon would invade and capture Judah on two more occasions, but it was this first group, wrenched from their homeland and Temple, who created a new Axial Age vision for the Jews.
The Jews were treated well in Babylon. They were allowed to live together in towns and villages along the Chebar River, where they could farm, earn a living, and practice their way of life and religion. They were encouraged in letters from the Prophet Jeremiah to “build houses and live in them, take wives and have sons and daughters, but seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”