After the exile, when Ezra and Nehemiah set up their theocratic state, what caused the switch from oracles to texts as the absolute authority of God’s word?

My theory is that when the Jews established this post-exile theocracy, they needed a sense of God’s word that was fixed, stable, and always accessible. They realized they were a small vassal community surrounded by ethnically similar people with a host of different beliefs. So their emphasis was on two things: Defining themselves as separate from these groups and insuring their survival.

Imagine you are Ezra and a school of priests, sitting down in exile and trying to write your first edition of the Torah. You have a book of laws, some historical records, some oral legends, and a lot of prophecies. All of this is sacred material, but what do you do with it? The first thing they would notice about the prophecies is what we all notice: They are vague and hard to read. Their credibility is based on direct revelation, which is hard to verify and frequently disputed. They are often antiauthoritarian, openly defying kings and established leaders. And they only seem to be active in times of war and crisis.

No, the prophecies are not good guides for life after the exile, and new prophecy would have to be actively discouraged, since you don’t want your average Joe getting stoned and preaching that the book is wrong and that God is giving them new instructions.

Moreover, the prophets were a militant lot, and the heads of this new Jewish state had to discourage military insurrection at all costs. Why? Because they would be creamed! They would be utterly destroyed. Their only hope was to appease their Persian overlords. Nehemiah was a trusted member of the Persian royal household, and he emphasizes success by collaboration. In this era we get lots of stories–particularly Esther and Joseph, which I think is basically a Priestly addition to Genesis, about Jews who succeed and help their people by pleasing their overlords.

I mentioned the phrase “women of valor” at the start of this class as a redefinition of military virtue for peacetime. It’s no accident that post-exile writers call “valor” the ability to provide for your family and ensure their success. They actively discourage military virtues.

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