How were Judeans not outraged and completely taken back by what they were reading about their Elephantine counterparts doing in their secluded community? Were the books more about how they were supposed to live rather than how they actually lived, or did higher officials just adopt an “out of sight out of mind” attitude toward the Elephantine community?

Your speculations are similar to mine. I figure that either Ezra and Nehemiah present an ideal of a Torah-based community that much stricter in theory than in practice, or the Judean community didn’t really see the Elephantine community as truly Jewish, or (as you say) out of sight out of mind.

I go back to this with the text of Ruth, which many argue was written around the same time as Ezra and Nehemiah, and which directly attacks¬† the assertion that foreign women have no value. One might argue, if Ruth directly contradicts Torah law, how could the story of Ruth not only be admitted to the Jewish canon but also be treated as a sacred festival scroll? I come back to this theory vs practice notion. I feel certain that some people resisted the edict to send away their foreign wives (and children). I am certain that not everyone did it. In the same way, it seems possible that monotheism existed alongside polytheism and that people didn’t see those two things as mutually exclusive, strange as that seems to us.

But another possibility comes to mind, and that is that the Hebrew bible purposely includes books with opposing points of view so that those books can be disputed and argued. For example, the book of Daniel (a very late text) suggests that Jews can succeed merely by adhering to the Torah’s dietary laws. They do not have to actively resist their oppressors because if they obey the Torah strictly God will take care of them. On the other hand, the story of Esther suggests that Jews should use guile and sexuality to manipulate their oppressors, even if they have to violate dietary laws to do it. Or take the book of Job, which contradicts Deuteronomy on the connection between guilt and suffering. Job says that God withholds the reasons for our suffering from us and exists in a reality beyond our understanding.

This last perspective makes the most sense to me. For Jews, the Mishnah and the Talmud have largely replaced the Hebrew bible as the primary object of study, and frequently the Talmud openly contradicts biblical teachings. The Talmud is an enormous body of stories, legends, conversations, interpretations, and arguments about how to apply laws to everyday life. So the Jewish experience of the bible involves argument, dispute,¬† and negotiation. The laws don’t exist in a vacuum but are applied to every day life, and that’s not always a perfect fit. Unlike some Christians, who believe every word of the bible is true and can be reconciled with every other word of the bible, the Jewish experience is different. To them, each story is part of a big noisy conversation, and arguing about their meaning lies at the heart of the Jewish experience of God.

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