Why is individual communication with God discouraged after the exile? If individual communication with God through prophecy is discouraged, who will spread the word and teach others about God?

As always, your question is insightful and so the answers are complicated. Ezra’s attempt to “fix” the message of the bible by restricting access to God to the Torah and public prayer was an attempt to do at least three things: 

  • Follow God’s laws to the letter so that disaster would not happen again
  • Keep people who claimed to have a vision from God from dividing the community with competing messages (clearly, this had been a problem in Jeremiah, since he talks about false prophecies)
  • Make sure that no king or priest could keep the message secret from the people, thereby making community survival a community responsibility

In one sense I agree with him. Interpretation of the bible is difficult, which we know because so many of us disagree about what the bible means. Understanding it is always a balancing act between individual and community voices. Some American evangelicals who claim to speak to God have been criticized for abusing the privilege, telling their followers that God wanted them to send them money and gifts. Others have argued that God wants them to abolish the separation of church and state. That worries me, because I know the widespread bloodshed that happens in societies that try to impose a single set of belief systems on their people. 

To give just one example, the American Puritan communities tried to build a theocracy, and a theocracy cannot tolerate dissenting voices. That explains the tragic story of Anne Hutchinson in the Massachusetts Bay Colony (Links to an external site.)

On the other hand, the rabbinical tradition is proof that laws need to be updated, reinterpreted, and reapplied. That’s why modern Jews learn the Talmud and the Midrash, not just the Hebrew bible. American laws have to be rewritten and reinterpreted in the courts, and the battle for how to interpret them lies at the heart of American politics. The New Testament books were attempts by disparate Jewish groups to apply Hebrew laws to Roman times. Islam, too, can be seem in this way. 

Later on in the Hellenistic period, we’ll see stories in which individuals communicate with God through private prayer. While I’m sure the content of private prayer was diverse, these stories only made it into the Apocrypha if they communicate approved ideas. My sense is Ezra would not have approved of that.  But the key thing about those prayers is that God does not answer, at least not directly. Instead, the Hellenistic period has God sending a new group of Angels such as Raphael, Michael, and Gabriel (notice they all contain “el” in their names) to answer the prayers. 

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