Striving to make an ideal world out of chaos


Jewish tradition talks about The Great Assembly, a group of 120 prophets, scholars, religious and political leaders canonized the Torah, largely as we know it today. They also redacted the books of Ezekiel, Daniel, and Esther, and the twelve Minor Prophets. They also codified the Shema, and composed the Shemonah Esreh or the standing prayer, still recited today. The composition of Jewish and Christian liturgy as we know it today comes from this assembly.

Torah may well be a work by committee of men who did not like each other.

Men said to be in the Great Assembly included Ezra, Malachi Nehemiah, Mordechai, Haggai, Zerubbabal, and Zechariah. “A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament,” states these men lived around 520 BCE.[1]  If these men were in the Great Assembly, we can date this assembly at that time. Third Isaiah wrote his book 525 – 500 BC. This makes Third Isaiah contemporary with the men of the Great Assembly. They could have been part of that assembly. That explains why our book of Isaiah is not a part of the list of prophets redacted into our Bible.

“A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament,” relates how there are severe historical problems related to the precise times Ezra and Nehemiah were active.[2]The Great Assembly is part of Jewish tradition and lore. Its dates and membership are subject to debate. “A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament,” tells us how there were many assemblies in the time of the Great Assembly. The Great Assembly could be many assemblies taking centuries.

The first great synagogue service is mentioned in Nehemiah 8. In it we see the rudiments of our Mass. The people assemble at the Water Gate, reminding us of our Baptism and confession. Torah/teachings are read to them, reminding us of our liturgy of the readings, and then they have a meal, our liturgy of the Eucharist. Levitical singers sing their songs, just as our choir sings at our Mass. From the chaos of the returning exiles that formed the men of the Great Assembly came two major world religions, Christianity and Judaism.

“A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament,” refers to the Jewish community returning from Babylon as “the congregation of the exiles.”[3] Exodus describes the enslavement of the Jewish People in Egypt. We all remember how these slaves built Pithom and Raamses for Pharaoh and how he oppressed the Jewish people by forcing them to build their bricks using their own straw. Egypt did not build their cities using brick and mortar; they used stone. Babylon used brick. The Torah writers represent the oppression in Babylon as if it happened in Egypt.

The Cherubim look very Babylonian.

This is not the only place we see a transposition from one time and place in Torah to another. When we read the story of the Garden of Eden and look at the cherubim with the fiery revolving sword east of the Garden of Eden we notice how closely the cherubim look like the depictions of Babylonian soldiers. We notice how the cherubim are east of the garden. We notice four rivers, Pishon, near where the Queen of Sheba came from. Gihon is near Cush, south of Israel. The other two rivers are the Tigris and Euphrates. In between the four rivers is the land of Israel. The apple is the way of the nations the Jewish kings tried to emulate. The price was expulsion. The writer blames the Jewish people for following the way of the nations for Judah’s defeat.

To show the dynamics of our Torah, we look at how Abraham prostituted Sarah twice, the choice of Rebecca, and how Isaac did the same with Rebecca once. Sarah abused of Hagar and her son. Each case shows racial intolerance toward the neighboring peoples. We need to notice that Hagar was Egyptian and the abuse the Egyptians put on the Hebrew people in return. It is as if the writer of these sections tells us, we can learn from our neighbors. By abusing them we reap abuse upon ourselves. Our Torah is a very dynamic text which demands to be read in context.

The writers of Exodus describe the events at Sinai/Horeb/Mt. Sword, in terms of a volcano. There is the volcanic cloud, the thunder, the separating ground that swallows people. There is no volcano in the Sinai. The closest is near the Islamic city of Mecca, in Saudi Arabia. Recent exiles from Babylonia, the writers of the Great Assembly may not have known this.

Ezekiel’s anticipation of a new heart and spirit, and Second-Isaiah’s poetry about new things  demonstrate that Israelites were contemplating the future soon after the demise of Judah as a nation.[4] The Jewish community was doing much the same as we look at the history of the Ma’amadot. Our book of Revelations refers to this institution in Revelations 11:16.  Nehemiah 7:39-43 lists four clans, with the Levites only one more. From the time of the men of the Great Assembly until the time of Jesus, this group had grown to 24. This implies this institution was new at the time of the Great Assembly.

We also see references to this in Luke’s story of Zechariah, one of the priestly Ma’amadot. We may also see a reference to this Ma’amadot in Jesus’ visit to the temple. Was this also a visit of the non-priestly men of standing as they visited the temple? If so, must we rewrite the story of Joseph and with it Jesus’ economic class? Must we also rewrite the story of Joseph of Arimathea, or Arithmetic? Joseph, in Hebrew does mean the Added One. Arithmetic does mean to add.  Jesus is of the family of King David. He could have been from the Ma’amadot. This does presuppose at least a middle-class background for Jesus. If Jesus’ father, Joseph, was a member of the Ma’amadot, as was this Joseph of Arimathea, could they be the same man? Does this move John the Baptist and Jesus into the upper-middle class, much like the liberals of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s?

The existence of this Ma’amadot would bring the rites of the temple to a people in a foreign land. We see the Taanaic rabbis doing the same in Jesus’ time. That is why they were pushing the people to wash their hands in the same way Torah demands the priest do in the temple. The same applies to the cups and bowls of that passage.

The Hebrew, ללח means common or separated from the temple. St. Matthew translates this concept into the Greek, κοινός/common. The Hebrew, ללח shows how the Jewish community at the time of the Great Assembly and throughout the Second Temple period saw holiness and all that comes with it as being tied to the temple. In Matthew 23:16 Jesus uses Kal Vahomer to show the centrality of the temple to him. The temple, not the sacrifice is more important. That applies to gold and to oaths. In Jesus debate in Mark 7, he is not disputing the centrality of the temple, but what makes one worthy to enter the temple.

In the Gospel of St. John 8:57 Jesus is not yet fifty. In John 2:19 the temple is forty-six years old, not yet fifty. John 2:21 goes on to mention how Jesus talks about the temple of his body. St. John equates the two, further showing that from beginning to end, the Second Temple was central to Jewish life. St. John equates Jesus with the temple; he does not deny the centrality of the temple. If there is a shift in thinking about the temple it comes from I Corinthians 3:16-17. He uses a form of G’zerah Shavah or argument by analogy from Leviticus 19:2. If God is holy, the temple is holy, and we are holy, we must be like the temple. Therefore we are temples of God. This also reaffirms the centrality of the temple. St. Paul derives our holiness from it.

Erik Erickson discusses child development theory as it relates to the debate. His first stage of child development, group dynamics, or any human interaction is trust versus mistrust. He follows this with autonomy versus shame and doubt. Only then can a group, or child, or adults consider moving on to initiative and industry. Jesus pushes his followers, and his competition to move toward industry, and Erickson’s higher stages, such as Identity, Intimacy, and Generativity.

Erikson’s theory maintains that we cannot reach any of the higher levels, including industry, or a properly functioning society until we trust, sometimes in spite of the evidence. The men of the Great Assembly do this as they reach out to each other to rebuild the Jewish nation. Jesus teaches us to do the same, ignoring the threat of the Romans and their stooges in power in Jerusalem.

During the time of Third Isaiah the Jewish community was in chaos. The temple was destroyed and the community debated whether the Jewish community existed as a community. The work of the Great Assembly, helped to work through what it meant to be Jewish and therefore to trust. Third Isaiah teaches the Jewish community of the need to trust, because sometimes, in spite of the evidence, God is in control.

Lawrence Kohlberg, like Loyola University, is from Chicago. He gave us the stages of moral development from another child development specialist, Jean Piaget. Kohlberg has six stages of moral development which apply to the period of the Great Assembly and to the behavior of the men of the Jewish community of Jesus’ time. The lowest level in Kohlberg is Obedience and punishment. Either the Jewish leadership kept the population under control or Rome would. The leadership would not like Rome stepping in and punishing everyone, which they did in 70 A.D.

The second level applies to the first. Mark 7 relates the story of what makes common. The Pharisees were very interested in keeping their status over the masses so they could preserve not just their relative comfort, but also their lives. Jesus enters this lack-of-faith matrix, teaching he is Messiah. This upsets the Pharisees, not just because it would mean the end of their positions, but also because it means the Romans would come to defend their positions. The Passion may have been born as much out of fear as envy as the Gospel writers report.

Nothing causes people to be out to get you like paranoia. When people think that way, sooner or later they act on that paranoia. When they do, people need to go out and get them. There is one thing worse than paranoia. That is mutual paranoia. We see this in the pro-life debate today. The liberals are out to get the pro-life people. No reason is given. The pro-life people are out to get the liberals. Again, no reason is given. Each acts on paranoia. This causes the other side to retaliate; it causes the other side to go out and get the side acting first. We see the same thing in the Middle-East. Each side is paranoid about the other side. As a result, they retaliate, causing the other side to be paranoid and act on this paranoia.

Mount of Olives

The Passion account begins with Matthew 21 when Jesus enters Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives. The Mount of Olives is famous for having the tombs of the men of the Great Assembly, and other notables. One coming over that mountain would first see the tombs. They would then see the chaos Matthew describes in Matthew 21:12. We also know from Mark 7, the Pharisees also knew that the Jewish Passover festival was a crowd control disaster waiting to happen.

We can appreciate the Pharisees and the Sadducees were also aware of the problem. They were probably also aware of the prophecy with its tradition of Zechariah 2:3. Zechariah was also from the period of the Great Assembly. This tradition related four carpenters and related that these were to be Elijah, Messiah Ben Joseph, Messiah Ben David, and Melchizedek.

At Jesus’ trial we can appreciate the quandary of the Sanhedrin. Using a truth table we realize there were four possibilities. They could not look at the situation in hind sight. This relates to Kohlberg’s second stage of development. What is in it for them? If Jesus was Messiah, he was Messiah Ben Joseph, the Messiah who would lose the war; the Romans would come and take all their good life. If they voted to convict Jesus of treason, they were convicting the Messiah. The temple was one big roof, “Gog,” in Hebrew. They did not want to be Gog which God would destroy. Neither of these choices were good choices.

If Jesus was not the Messiah and they voted to convict him of treason, they removed a trouble maker. This was whether he was guilty of treason or not. If he was guilty, the judgment was correct. If not… at least they removed a trouble maker. The Sanhedrin gives Jesus a chance to get out of their predicament. If Jesus denies being Messiah Ben Joseph he denies being the trouble maker who would try to stir the crowd into rebellion. If he refuses, Jesus ties their hands.

Human preservation is a powerful force in human behavior. The Sanhedrin knew they had a crowd control problem and they took steps to make sure the coming calamity did not occur on their watch. They knew it was coming and it provided the energy behind the trial. The Pharisees chose this last option using Kohlberg’s level two reasoning.

This does presuppose the Sanhedrin knew of that tradition. Midrash was not written and cannot be dated with certainty until the third century. Presupposing the Rabbis knew of the carpenter tradition is conjecture. Mark 7 does point to the Pharisees making plans for a non-temple based Jewish community. They were aware of the danger they were in. Jesus chastises them for their lack of faith and calls them an evil/רע/rotten generation as a result.

Using stage four reasoning, they did not want the Roman Cataclysm to happen on their watch. Erikson through his stage one tells us that lack of trust in the form of fear is the primal motivator. Maslow, in his hierarchy of needs mentions safety as the second level motivator after food, clothing, and air. The energy in the room during Jesus’ trial shows that the Pharisees knew just what Jesus meant to them, and they acted on it.

Level four reasoning comes from the mouth of Caiaphas, high priest that year, “You know nothing, nor do you consider that it is better for you that one man should die instead of the people, so that the whole nation may not perish.” Caiaphas and some of the other Pharisees and Sadducees in the room really were interested in the welfare of the nation and were willing to kill to preserve their nation. The hope we see coming from the minds of the men of the Great Assembly and the rabbis who came to power followed Jesus’ death showed they could overcome their fear, and move on to autonomy, allowing the Jewish community to survive two millennium of Diaspora. Jesus died trying to break the cycle. His Passion and resurrection says, “So what! Even if they are out to get you, we will win in the end. This is the legacy of both the Jewish and Christian sister communities.

The Great Assembly uses level four reasoning. Hebrew has two words for Justice and one of them appears in Deuteronomy 5:1, the giving of the Ten Commandments. This word is מִּשְׁפָּטִ and literally means, from the lips. This justice comes from the lips of God. We receive this Mitzvah through הַחֻקִּים or custom. Deuteronomy 5 does show how the community was moving from level four reasoning to level five reasoning. The Ten Commandments are a social contract.

Through the Great Assembly we see the great debates of the early second temple period. There were the people of the northern nation of Israel who referred to God as Elohim and the priests who referred to God as El Shaddai. There were the intellectuals of Jerusalem who referred to God by his Personal Name, and another group who combined these to come up with the Personal Name and El, God. If they could not agree on such concepts as how to refer to God and justice, how much more must they have debated upon the details. They early second temple period rabbis were aware the Persians were watching, and had to come up with a statement of culture or the temple and Jerusalem’s walls would not be rebuilt. They Jewish and Christian religions as we know them today would not exist.

Jeremiah’s language about a new covenant (Jeremiah 31:31), Ezekiel’s anticipation of a new heart and spirit (Ezek 36:26), and Deutero-Isaiah’s poetry about new things (Isaiah 43:18-19) demonstrate how Israelites were contemplating the future soon after the demise of Judah as a nation.[5] The existence of the Ma’amadot also relates this looking forward to new things.

The difference between the various groups within the Great Assembly is to which custom each group refers. The priestly group uses judicial precedent as it comes from Sinai/Mt. Horeb/Mt. Sword. The northern tribes use the customs חֻקִּים coming from the northern kingdom/Israel. In the story of Ruth, who Ruth is to marry is decided at the gates through the customs prevalent at that time. Both groups believe their מִּשְׁפָּטִ come from the very lips of God, as if God gave those precedents at Sinai himself. Our Catholic concept of tradition comes from the same idea.

Ezekiel 40–48 dated to 573 BCE, presents the prophet’s vision of a rebuilt temple and offers a description of the land and the priestly responsibilities and prerogatives. There is place only for a prince as leader. This vision puts pride of place on the temple, its priests and its Levites. We see this preference in Mark 7 and Matthew 23.[6]

For Haggai, the temple is integral to life. Haggai also sees the importance of the restoration of the Davidic monarchy (Hagai 2:20-23). He speaks to Zerubbabel, a member of the Davidic house, looking to Zerubbabel as a ring David would wear (Haggai 2:23). Haggai sees that for Israel to be Israel, they must have not only a temple but also a restored king of Davidic lineage.[7]

Zechariah’s visions offer a third option. In a combination of vision and oracle, in Zecheriah 4 presents a golden lamp-stand with an olive tree on each side. Verse 14 identifies these two trees as “the two anointed ones,” whom most commentators identify with Zerubbabel, the governor, and Joshua, the high priest.[8]

This combination may play out in the debates about whether or not Israel is to have a king. In I Samuel 8:7 the people come to Samuel and ask for a king. God tells Samuel, asking for a king, they do not reject Samuel and his heirs, but God himself. This reflects the view of Ezekiel and his camp.

Deuteronomy 17:8-13 also reflects the view that the priests are to be in charge of the judiciary. Immediately following is the view that there is a role for the king. We see in the sacred writings Moses being paired with Aaron, and Saul’s rejection as king because he violates the priestly role. This reflects the vision of Zechariah. Torah, far from being a simple law book, reflects these diverse groups as they debate what kind of kingdom they will have.

We also see this vibrant debate in relation to the dietary laws. In Exodus 23:19 and Deuteronomy we see the command against boiling a baby it its mother’s milk. In Genesis 18:7-8 we see Abraham serving meat and milk products together, in direct violation of this dietary law. If God found this practice nauseating, why would he allow Abraham to engage in this practice? Why should we care about what Abraham served to guests three millennium ago? What we see is a vibrant Jewish community debating the dietary laws which were written to define who the Jewish people were to be as a people.

Third Isaiah tells us, “The foreigner joined to the Personal Name will not say, “The Personal Name will exclude me from his people. The eunuch will not say, “See, I am a dry tree.” Jesus shows us, “Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went over to it, but found nothing on it except leaves. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again.” Immediately the fig tree withered.” The fruitless person is the person who dries up and withers, not the eunuch.

The Ten Commandments as a Social Contract are based upon level five reasoning, an advanced reasoning which presupposes an advanced civilization, which we find in Jerusalem during the period of the kings. Scholars now believe Deuteronomy, or the second giving of Sefer Torah, was the first teaching the Jewish community wrote down. This reasoning is based upon Social Contract, the social contract between the Jewish people and themselves, and between the Jewish people and God. This contract depends upon a different definition and a different word for Justice, צְדָקָה. צְדָקָה means both Justice and Charity.

As Jesus takes on this word and as the Jewish community came to take on this word, we move toward Kohlberg stage six. In the movie, Schindler’s List, Schindler is called by the Jewish title, a Tzadik. A Tzadik is a person who violates the law, in Schindler’s case, an unjust and immoral law, in the name of צְדָקָה. Jesus’ father, Joseph, violates the law as it relates to the Blessed Virgin, and does not put her away, in quiet, or at all.

Coming from the family of Joseph and our Blessed Virgin, Jesus accepts this higher level of reasoning. That is level six reasoning. That is the Universal ethical principles level. The conflict arises when the level four reasoning of the Pharisees meets the level six reasoning of Jesus. He wants all people to trust. God is in control and will deal with the Romans. From this, the Jewish community can create a sense of autonomy, which they did, through the teaching of Hillel, Shammai, the men of the Great Assembly, and the scholars, Jewish and Christian who have come since. From this, the Jewish and Christian communities were able to develop communities which thrived and will continue to thrive, creating rich customs and traditions which others will come to emulate.

“I will bring to my dedicated mountain and make them joyful in my house of prayer. Their upraised offerings and their sacrifices will be acceptable on my altar. My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” So quotes Jesus quoting Isaiah 56 in Matthew 21:13. It is the Pharisee of Jesus’ time, and today, who is the fruit who dries up. The do not trust in God. Trusting in God brings fruit which the Pharisees do not have. In the nativity story Zechariah does not trust Gabriel while he is in the temple. Gabriel means strength of God. Hebrew translates Gabor as, “a gentleman.” Zechariah means remembrance. Elizabeth means the oath of God. The promise of God is sterile. What remains is empty remembrance of past glory. If that is all the leadership has, what comes out of their mouths is gibberish. This is Gabriel’s punishment for Zechariah in the temple. This is what we see coming out of our politicians today.

Third Isaiah finishes his first chapter, “All you beasts of the field, come to devour, all you beasts in the forest! All the sentinels of Israel are blind, without knowledge; mute dogs, unable to bark; Dreaming, reclining, loving their sleep. Yes, they are all dogs with the appetite of a goat. They are never satisfied. They are shepherds with no understanding; all have turned their own way, each one desiring gain: “Come, let me bring wine; let us fill ourselves with strong drink…” Third Isaiah sees the same for the leaders of his time, as Jesus sees the same for the leaders of his time. During Jesus’ time was the Roman occupation. The Pharisees and the Sadducees were the middlemen between the Roman occupiers and the folk living the lives of poverty.

Modern hermeneutics explains how the gospels as we know them must have been written after the year 70 of the Common Era. Jesus describes in some detail the destruction of the temple. The Romans destroyed the temple in the year 70. The gospel writers describing this prediction must have written after that date.

When we realize that Herod came to power by virtue of helping the Roman armies drive out Parthia, Anthony and Cleopatra had marched through Judah on their way to the Battle of Actium, we realize Roman armies had marched through Judah before, in the time of Jesus’ grandparents. Jesus, the Pharisees, and most others knew what war was. It was like the start of World War II in Belgium or Northern France. During that War, Marshal Philippe Pétain fought as he did because he was afraid of a repeat of the First World War. His coming a later generation did not change the way he fought the war. It caused a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The same applies with Jesus and his contemporaries. The Pharisees knew what war was and in fighting to prevent it, helped to cause it. If it did not take God himself, or some great mystic to predict the coming calamity, the reason for the late dating is in error. Of course, Matthew and Luke have statements within them implying a later date. St. John’s Gospel, through its high Christology implies a later date.

The men of the Great Assembly were striving to create a functional society out of chaos. They realized their old battles were part of that chaos. Our Torah/teaching is a statement of culture by committee, a committee involving tea bag republicans, far left wing liberals, and every shade of political culture in between. They realized, to survive as a nation, they had to find common ground without compromise. Therefore, we see the contradictions in Torah we see today. When they could not resolve an issue, they presented all sides, and let Elijah, or the reader, figure it out.

Similar vocabulary to Third Isaiah’s words can be used when describing our own time today. We do add meaning to Jesus’ words, “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” The question is, will we resolve our differences by looking for common ground without compromising our values, as did the men of the Great Assembly, or will we go the way of the late second temple, destroying our nation in the name of preserving it and our values?


[1] Brueggemann, Walter; Petersen, David L.; Fretheim, Terence E.; Birch, Bruce C. (2010-03-01). A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament: 2nd Edition (p. 426). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] Brueggemann, Walter; Petersen, David L.; Fretheim, Terence E.; Birch, Bruce C. (2010-03-01). A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament: 2nd Edition (p. 429). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.

[3] Brueggemann, Walter; Petersen, David L.; Fretheim, Terence E.; Birch, Bruce C. (2010-03-01). A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament: 2nd Edition (p. 431). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.


[4] Brueggemann, Walter; Petersen, David L.; Fretheim, Terence E.; Birch, Bruce C. (2010-03-01). A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament: 2nd Edition (p. 434). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.

[5] Brueggemann, Walter; Petersen, David L.; Fretheim, Terence E.; Birch, Bruce C. (2010-03-01). A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament: 2nd Edition (p. 431). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.

[6] Brueggemann, Walter; Petersen, David L.; Fretheim, Terence E.; Birch, Bruce C. (2010-03-01). A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament: 2nd Edition (p. 432). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.

[7] Brueggemann, Walter; Petersen, David L.; Fretheim, Terence E.; Birch, Bruce C. (2010-03-01). A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament: 2nd Edition (p. 432). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.

[8] Brueggemann, Walter; Petersen, David L.; Fretheim, Terence E.; Birch, Bruce C. (2010-03-01). A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament: 2nd Edition (p. 432). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.

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2 thoughts on “Striving to make an ideal world out of chaos

  1. Pingback: Creation in Genesis relates the fight between Shalom and Violence « The stories of Curtis and Salvador

  2. Pingback: The idea of “Holy” has real meaning when understanding righteousness part 1 « The stories of Curtis and Salvador

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