Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 20

Psalm 20

This Psalm (and the one following) have, as its original setting and background, the royal Israelite/Judean army, led by its king, preparing to go to war. I agree with earlier commentators (Gunkel, Dahood, et al) who identified this context, and the wording and imagery throughout the composition would seem to confirm that it is correct. The Psalm functions as a prayer to God for victory in battle, and may well reflect a specific ritual setting, involving sacrificial offerings made prior to going out to battle. It is not necessary, however, to insist that the Psalm was originally composed for performance in such a setting.

The religious and theological dimension of warfare, expressed in this Psalm, will doubtless seem foreign to modern western readers; indeed, many Christians today may find the association rather repellent, in light of our modern view of the medieval Crusades, Islamic jihad, and other forms of “holy war”. However, in the ancient Near East, the divine role in warfare simply reflected an understanding of the control exercised by deities (or the Deity) over all areas of daily life. The success of an army meant that its gods (or God) favored it, with the deities of the victorious nation effectively gaining victory over those of the defeated people. In the context of Israelite Yahwism, a victory in battle for Israel served as proof that their God (YHWH) was superior to those of the other nations.

The language of the Psalm was such that, over time, the concepts of salvation and victory, trust in the name of God, etc, could be given a wider and more general application to the people of Israel. However, like many of the Psalms, the royal background must be kept clearly in view and central to any proper interpretation. The original context is that of the king and his army, as he responds to the various conflicts with his enemies and opponents. While these “enemies” may be treated generically and symbolically at many points in the Psalms, the poems were also composed within the background of real socio-political conflicts and real battles. It was not the classic “holy war” of the earlier Israelite confederacy, but the basic idea remained, filtered through a strong (Judean) royal theology, regarding the king (from the line of David) and his relationship to YHWH.

Structurally, the Psalm divides into two parts:

    • Vv. 2-6—a prayer for God’s help and support, for the king (and his army)
    • Vv. 7-10—a declaration of victory, indicating that the prayer has been (i.e. will be) answered

Rhythmically, a 4-beat meter dominates in the first part (2+2, but 4+4 in the opening couplet), though not without some tension and irregularity, which may be a way of expressing musically the “distress” that the king faces. In the second part, it is a 3+3 meter, again with certain irregular points of tension that build, only to resolve in the final two couplets.

The musical direction in the superscription simply indicates that this Psalm is another musical composition (romz+m!) “belonging to” David.

Part 1: Verses 2-6

Verse 2 [1]

“May YHWH answer you (to bring victory) in (the) day of distress,
(the) name of the Mightiest (One) of Ya’aqob set you (safe) on high!”

This 4+4 couplet establishes the theme and setting of the Psalm, which, as noted above, would seem to be a time of conflict for the king (and nation), requiring an act of war. In several Old Testament passages, the verb hn`u* connotes the idea of engaging in violent conflict, to force an opponent into submission, etc (e.g., Num 24:24); in such instances, it is root hn`u* III in the Piel stem. Here, apparently, in line 1 the root is hn`u* I (“answer, respond”), implying the hope that YHWH will answer the prayer and respond to king’s need (in battle). The verb bg~c* in the second line, in the Piel stem, refers to putting something (or someone) in a high place, where they will be safe.

The concept of the “name”, especially that of the deity, was extremely complex in ancient Near Eastern thought. A person’s name embodied the character and nature of the person. Thus, to speak of God’s name, was to refer to God Himself–His nature, power, and presence. Moreover, at times, the “name” of God was understood as functioning as a distinct hypostasis, or active manifestation. Here the “name” (<v@) of the Mighty One (“Mightiest”, <yh!l)a$, i.e. God) of Jacob (Israel) protects the people of Israel, and their king. For more on significance of names and naming in the Old Testament, cf. my earlier Christmas series “And you shall call His name…”, especially the articles on the names of God.

Verses 3-6 [2-5]

“May He send your help from (His) holy place,
and give you (His) support from ‚iyyôn;
may He remember all your gifts (to Him),
and receive the fat (of) your rising (offering)s. Selah
May He give (to) you according to your heart,
and fulfill (for you) all of your plan(s);
may we shout (for joy) in your salvation,
and in (the) name of our Mightiest display (the banner)!
May YHWH fulfill all your petitions (to Him)!”

After the 4+4 bicolon of verse 2, a series of four 2+2 couplets follow, interrupted by a pause (hl*s#, selah), perhaps to indicate that the four couplets should not be run together, but to function as two distinct strophes. The first strophe establishes the religious context of the prayer, and of the mobilization for war (on this last point, cf. above). The “help” (rz#u@) YHWH will send to the king comes from His “holy place” (vd@q))—that is, the sanctuary of the Temple, in the temple-palace complex on the ancient fortified hill-top locale (Zion) of Jerusalem. Moreover, this response is predicated upon the faithfulness of the king (and his priests and people) in fulfilling the ritual obligations of the covenant: the “gifts” and sacrificial offerings to God. Possibly, a specific sacrificial ritual, prior to going out to war, and overseen by the king, is in view.

The second strophe, or pair of couplets, brings out this relationship of the king and his people (including his army). The first couplet offers a prayer that God will allow the king to fulfill everything that he plans (presumably in terms of conducting the war); and that, as a result, the people will be able to shout together in confidence that victory (salvation) is assured. The verb lg~D* is often used in the technical sense of displaying (i.e. carrying/raising) a banner or (military) standard.

The final couplet serves a climax to the first part of the Psalm, emphasizing again the prayer context. It is framed in terms of the petitions that the king himself will make to God, presumably prior to (and during) the course of the battle.

Part 2: Verses 7-10

Verse 7 [6]

“Now I know that YHWH brings salvation (for) His anointed—
He (has) responded from (the) heavens of His holy (place),
(bring)ing salvation with (the great) strength of His right (hand)!”

The opening of this part of the Psalm parallels the couplet in verse 2 (cf. above), building upon the war-prayer setting. It is a declaration that God has answered the prayer, and will bring victory (“salvation”). The beat of the opening is irregular—almost, but not quite a 3+3 couplet; I have rendered it above as a single line. A proper 3+3 couplet follows, expounding the idea in the opening line. I tentatively regard the plural form torb%g+ (“strengths, mighty [deed]s”) as an intensive plural, perhaps to convey the sense that YHWH’s aid from heaven will function much like the warriors (“mighty ones”, <yr!oBG]) of an earthly army. On the king as the “anointed one” (j^yv!m*) of God, cf. the earlier study on Psalm 2.

Verse 8 [7]

“Th(e)se with the ride [i.e. chariot], and th(o)se with the horses—
(but) we bring to mind (our trust) in the name of our Mightiest!”

The sequence of 3+3 couplets is interrupted by this 4+4 bicolon, the precise sense of which is difficult to determine. It appears to incorporate a proverbial slogan, perhaps reflecting the ancient “holy war” tradition of the Israelite confederacy. The main idea appears to be that the Israelite army does not simply rely upon superior military strength (i.e. chariots and horses) for victory, but upon the support of YHWH their God. It seems likely that the actual name YHWH (the tetragrammaton hwhy) may be a secondary addition; many commentators omit it as disruptive to the rhythm, and its absence is indicated in the A text of the Greek LXX.

More problematic is the final verb form ryK!z+n~, which would be parsed as a Hiphil imperfect of the verb rk^z`, essentially meaning “bring to mind”. According to this, the line would read: “but we bring to mind with/by the name of our Mightiest”. The parallel with Isa 48:1 suggests that the idea here involves an affirmation of Israel’s allegiance to YHWH, making an oath or confession of loyalty by His name. This special sense of invoking God’s name, with its magical-religious attributes, is also indicated in Isa 26:13; 62:6, and Amos 6:10. By contrast, Dahood (p. 129), derives ryK!z+n~ from a separate root, a denominative verb based on rk*z` (“male”), i.e. “to be male”; as such, the form would be parallel to ryB!g+n~ (from rb#G#, “strong/vigorous [young] man”), cf. Psalm 12:5. In context, the meaning would then be “we will be strong/victorious (in battle)”. It is an intriguing interpretation, but the use such a denominative verb rk^z` (II) elsewhere in the Old Testament is extremely slight and uncertain (but see Exod 34:19).

Verses 9-10 [8-9]

“They—they bend down and fall,
but we—we rise and take our (stand) again;
YHWH brings salvation (to) him, the king,
He answers us in (the) day we call (to Him).”

The contrast between Israel and the other nations (spec. their opponents) is continued from verse 8 in the first couplet. Those who trust in chariots and horses are bent to the ground and fall (in defeat), while those who rely on YHWH’s strength, invoking His name in allegiance to Him, rise to stand victorious in battle. The specific verb forms in the final couplet are unclear; the Masoretic pointing indicates an imperative, following by a jussive, i.e. “YHWH, (may you) bring salvation…may He answer us…”. However, it may be better (and more consistent) to read the first verb form as = ouyv!oh (“He brings/brought salvation [for] him”, i.e. for the king). Both the prayer setting (with an answer to prayer), and the unified juxtaposition of king and people (army), are integral to the entire sense and structure of the Psalm.

References above marked “Dahood” are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965).

Saturday Series: Isaiah 13:1-14:27

Isaiah 13:1-14:27

In this current series of studies on the Book of Isaiah, we turn now to the next major division of the book—chapters 13-27. That 13:1 marks the beginning of a new division is clear from the parallels with the superscription in 2:1, and is confirmed by the formatting at this point in the Qumran manuscripts 1QIsaa and 4QIsaa. Moreover, these chapters are characterized throughout as nation-oracles, with the overall theme of God’s judgment against the nations.

Indeed, the nation-oracle is a distinct genre with a long history in the Old Testament (and elsewhere in the ancient Near East), overlapping with that of the judgment-oracle. Examples can be found in most of the Prophetic writings, spanning a period of centuries, with noteworthy sets or collections in the books of Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. It tends to be tied to the “day of YHWH” motif—the “day” being the moment or time when YHWH acts to bring judgment against a particular nation or people (including His own people, the kingdoms of Israel/Judah). The nation-oracles typically announce or foretell the coming judgment, often in graphic (and exaggerated) visual terms, using a range of striking imagery and symbolism. Such details are not necessarily meant to be taken in a concrete, literalistic sense. The point is the judgment itself—and its certainty, as a direct response of the sovereign God (El-Yahweh) to the wickedness and violence of a nation. Sometimes the possibility of repentance is part of the oracle, though typically this is not the case—the judgment is determined, and cannot be avoided.

IsaIAH 13:1—the Historical & Literary Setting

Isaiah 13:1 reads: “(The) lifting up [ma´´¹°] (of the voice regarding) Babel [i.e. Babylon], which Yesha‘yahu {Yah-will-save} son of ’Amos beheld in a vision [µ¹zâ]”. As noted above, this is similar to the superscription at the beginning of chaps. 2-12, as well to that of the book as a whole (1:1). The idiom of seeing/vision (using the root µ¹zâ), can refer simply to the prophetic message, and need not entail an actual vision (of which there are very few in the book of Isaiah). There may be a tendency to associate these words specifically with chapter 13; however, their real significance relates to the wider context of chapters 13-27, and is two-fold:

    • It marks chs. 13-27 essentially as a collection of ma´´¹°o¾, and
    • It marks the literary setting of the Isaian material (oracles) as that of the Babylonian Empire (Babylon) in the 6th century B.C.

The noun ma´´¹° literally means a “lifting up” (that is, of the voice), used in the technical prophetic sense of an oracle uttered by the inspired spokesperson (n¹»î°, i.e. prophet) of YHWH. It occurs frequently in the Prophets, including at the beginning of the shorter books (Nah 1:1; Hab 1:1; Mal 1:1; cf. also Zech 9:1), but most often appears in the book of Isaiah—14 times, and 11 of these are found in the nation-oracle material of chapters 13-23.

The focus on the judgment against Babylon—its fall—in chapters 13-14 (and also chap. 21) needs to be discussed, both from an historical and literary standpoint. It is hard to explain these prophecies as the work of the 8th century prophet Isaiah, something that critical commentators, especially, have long noted. What meaning would the fall of Babylon (presumably that of the Babylonian Empire) have held for people of that time, when the dominating power was Assyria? By contrast, such a message would have been most important (and welcome) to Israelites and Judeans of the 6th century, especially as an announcement of Babylon’s fall would have been tied to the idea of the possible restoration of Israel/Judah, and the return of the people to their land. Prior to the Babylonian conquest and exile, would the message of chap. 13 (and 21) have made any real sense to the people? Thus, most critical commentators would hold that the prophecies on Babylon’s fall were composed at a later time, in the 6th century (prior to 539, when Babylon fell to the Persians). The similarities of wording, theme, and detail between Isa 13 and Jer 50-51 would tend to confirm this (see Blenkinsopp, p. 278).

At the same time, there is little reason to doubt the authenticity of most of the material in chapters 15-20, as representing Isaian oracles from the (late) 8th century B.C. Even the poem of 14:4b-21 itself, despite its connection to Babylon in vv. 4a, 22-23, could easily date from this period (for more on this, see below). This suggests the following (possible) literary and historical explanation regarding the structure of chapters 13-21ff:

At some point in the 6th century (prior to 539), a collection of (earlier) Isaian nation-oracles was set within the context of the Babylonian conquest and exile. The theme of judgment in the nation-oracles was applied to Babylon (the Babylonian empire) in this transferred setting—announcing the coming judgment by God against the empire, including the fall of Babylon itself (similar to the oracle in Jeremiah 50-51). The twin oracles in chapters 13 and 21 on this theme suggest that chapters 13-21 may have formed the primary division, to which additional Isaian material (in chaps. 22-23) was added, being capped by the ‘Apocalypse’ of chapters 24-27. It has been suggested that the ‘Apocalypse’ was composed at the same time as chapter 13 (and perhaps by the same person), drawing upon authentic Isaian material and themes (see Roberts, p. 194).

A strict traditional-conservative view of the matter would tend to maintain the Isaian authorship of chapters 13, 21, etc—or, at least that they stem from authentic oracles by the prophet. My own opinion is that some measure of later (6th century) handling and editing has taken place, best explained as either: (a) adaptation of an authentic Isaian oracle, or (b) an intentional interpretation of Isaiah’s oracle(s) as applying to (and foretelling) the fall of Babylon. This will be discussed further below on chapters 13-14.

The Structure of Isaiah 13-14

Given the historical and literary questions addressed above, a proper understanding of this material must begin with a careful analysis of its form and structure. Within the overall context of chapters 13-27, it is right to consider chaps. 13-14 as a distinct unit, with the following literary outline:

    • 13:1—superscription establishing the Babylonian context of the nation-oracle(s)
    • 13:2-22—An oracle (ma´´¹°) on the Fall of Babylon
    • 14:1-2—Promise of Israel’s restoration/return (following Babylon’s fall)
    • [14:3-4a—transition to the poem in verses 4bff]
    • 14:4b-21—A dramatic representation (m¹š¹l) of the Fall of Babylon (the wicked tyrant, “king of Babylon”)
      [with an editorial comment, vv. 22-23]
    • 14:24-27—An oracular announcement of the Fall of Assyria

Each oracle-poem (13:2-22, 14:4b-21) is essentially followed by an announcement of salvation for God’s people. The sudden shift from Babylon to Assyria seems strange at first glance, but it makes good sense in light of the literary and historical explanation of this material offered above. Note the following parallelism, which strongly indicates an intentional adaptation (and interpretation) of the Isaian material:

    • Poem on the Fall of Babylon (13:2-22)
      • Babylon’s Fall = Salvation for the conquered/exiled people (14:1-2f)
    • Poem on the Fall of Assyria, whose king is the “king of Babylon” (14:4b-21)
      • Assyria’s Fall, which, by implication, means salvation for Judah and the conquered parts of Israel (14:24-27)

In other words, the overriding message is: just as God brought judgment on Assyria, with the possibility of salvation/deliverance for His people, so also He will bring judgment on Babylon, which will allow for the restoration/return of His people from exile.

The Oracle-Poem in Isaiah 14

In light of the above analysis, in the remainder of this study I wish to focus specifically on the oracle-poem in chapter 14. In the introduction (v. 4a), it is called a m¹š¹l, which is best translated as “representation”; that is to say, it is a poetic (and dramatic) representation of the nation’s fall, in the person of its king. But which nation? In spite of the references to Babylon in vv. 4a, 22-23, there are no such indicators in the poem itself, which could apply to almost any nation and/or wicked ruler of the time. For this reason, many commentators would hold that the original (Isaian) oracle actually referred to the king of Assyria.

A strong argument can be made that the king in question is Sargon II of Assyria (r. 721-705), who did, in fact, take on the title “king of Babylon” a few years before his death (709), something that, apparently, cannot be said of other Assyrian rulers of the period (Roberts, p. 207). On Sargon’s ascending the throne of Babylon, cf. A. Kirk Grayson, Assyrian and Babylonian Chronicles, Texts from Cuneiform Sources 5 (J. J. Augustin: 1975) 75 ii. 5-1´ (cited by Roberts, l.c.). Sargon died ignominiously, killed in battle while on military campaign. A later Assyrian text from the time of Esarhaddon makes clear that Sargon’s demise was such that his son and successor (Sennacherib) had to inquire of the gods what his father’s great sin was that led to such a fate. The comment that Sargon “was not buried in his house” could indicate that, having died on the battlefield, his body could not be recovered for a proper burial. If the oracle in chapter 14 referred to Sargon II, and was uttered during the years 709-705, then the title “king of Babylon” would have been entirely fitting, his death serving as a general fulfillment of the prophecy. At a later point, this circumstance would have allowed for the natural association between this Assyrian “king of Babylon”, and the Babylonian Empire itself (see above).

In considering the structure of the poem, it may be divided into two main parts:

    • An announcement of the tyrant’s death, which is declared by all the earth (and the underworld), verses 4b-11
    • A juxtaposition of the king’s lofty ambitions with his actual fate (vv. 12-21), presented in a dramatic dialogue-format that may be further subdivided:
      • Initial announcement of his fall (v. 12)
      • Dialogue (vv. 13-17):
        • The words ‘spoken’ by the tyrant’s heart (vv. 13-14)
        • His fate is the opposite (v. 15)
        • The words spoken by those oppressed by the tyrant (vv. 16-17)
      • The end and legacy of the tyrant (vv. 18-21)

If this is indeed a genuine Isaian oracle (from the end of the 8th century), then it represents perhaps the earliest example of the “wicked tyrant” motif in the nation-oracles of the Prophets. There is a comparable instance, applied to Sennacherib (son and successor of Sargon), in 2 Kings 19:22ff (= Isa 37:23ff). These occurrences in the nation-oracles, as they developed over a number of centuries, provide much of the Old Testament background for the “Antichrist” tradition in early Christianity. I discuss that subject at length in a three-part article as part of the series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”.

Having surveyed the critical aspects of chapter 14, in next week’s study, I wish to examine the oracle-poem of vv. 4b-21 in detail, looking closely at each verse and poetic line. Such exegetical analysis, in addition to a critical analysis, will allow us to see more clearly how the ancient prophetic oracle form functioned in its original setting, and how it may have served as a source of inspiration for subsequent messages of judgment against the nations, as well as hope and deliverance for God’s people.

References above marked “Roberts” are to J. J. M. Roberts, First Isaiah, Hermeneia Commentary Series (Fortress Press: 2015).
Those marked “Blenkinsopp” are to Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 1-39, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 19 (Yale: 2000).


The Holy Spirit in the Dead Sea Scrolls: Part 2

In Part 1 of this article, I examined the references to the “holy spirit” in the Qumran Writings, focusing primarily on the three key texts—the Community Rule (1QS), the Damascus Document (QD/CD), and the Hymns (Hodayot, 1QH). These writings share a common understanding regarding the holy spirit of God, and its relation to the holiness of the Community. As it happens, there is a rather different aspect of the pneumatology of the Qumran texts, expressed within an elaborate ritual (and visionary) setting, that is attested in several key writings, most notably the so-called “Angelic Liturgy” or “Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice”. Because of the difficulty and complexity of this material, it is necessary to give it a separate treatment here.

Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice

This work is preserved in at least 9 manuscripts from Qumran (4Q400-407, 11Q17), and one from Masada (Mas1k). The number of manuscripts, copied over more than 75 years, attests to the popularity of the work; presumably, it was utilized within the worship and ritual of the Qumran Community. The commonly accepted title today (Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice), reflects the structure of this work—a series of thirteen “Songs”, one for each Sabbath during the first quarter of the year. The introductory formula for each Song indicates that it was meant to accompany the daily burnt offering on the Sabbath. The association with the Temple-ritual is important for an understanding of the Community’s religious identity, both in its origins and present constitution—with a strong priestly component, having separated from the Temple establishment in Jerusalem. As occurred within Judaism following the destruction of the Temple, it was necessary for the Qumran Community to find a new way of expressing the reality of the Temple ritual for its members—at the spiritual/symbolic level, and within an entirely new visionary setting.

For a fine treatment of the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice, in English, with reconstruction, translation, textual notes, and commentary, cf. James R. Davila, Liturgical Works, Eerdmans Commentaries on the Dead Sea Scrolls (Eerdmans: 2000), pp. 83-167.

The Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice make for difficult reading; in addition to the fragmentary text, the work has a visionary and liturgical character that is quite foreign to our religious sensibilities today. A proper understanding is helped by realizing that there are three interrelated aspects throughout the Songs:

    • The ritual setting and religious life of the Community, tied to the actual Sabbath-worship during the year
    • The Old Testament description of the Temple and Tabernacle, along with related traditions
    • A visionary description of the heavenly realms, which, while drawing upon Scriptural expressions and imagery, is largely independent of Old Testament tradition

The three aspects blend together in an original and powerful way. It is the last aspect that is especially foreign to Christians today; however, it will not seem quite so strange to scholars and students who are familiar with the Jewish apocalyptic and mystical writings of the first centuries B.C./A.D. and beyond. It is worth touching on these briefly before proceeding to a discussion of the Songs.

Jewish Visionary Tradition

There are certain definite parallels between the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice and several lines of visionary and mystical tradition in Judaism. Certainly, many of the pseudepigraphic writings from the period c. 200 B.C. to 400 A.D. contain apocalyptic elements that include visions of heaven—even visionary journeys through the heavenly realms—similar to the descriptions we find in the Songs. However, the closest parallels are perhaps to be found in the Hekhalot literature, so named because the writings involve a visionary ascent through the heavenly “palaces” (hekhalot, tolk*yh@). It represents an expression of the so-called Merkabah (“chariot”) mysticism. The merkabah (hb*K*r=m#, “sitting/riding place”, i.e. chariot) idea stems largely from Old Testament tradition, and especially the visions in Ezekiel 1 and 10, as representing the dwelling place and throne of God. In the Merkabah-mysticism, this idea is adapted in a curious way: the mystic goes down (descends) into the chariot, which serves as the vehicle for the visionary ascent. It is possible that the “chariot” here stands as a symbol for a ritual meditative technique that enables the visionary experience. In any case, the seer ascends through the “palaces” of the seven heavenly realms, facing challenges and dangers along the way; ultimately, if successful, he reaches the Throne of Glory and is allowed a glimpse of the worship performed there by the Angels.

The Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice share many characteristics and manner of expression with these Hekhalot writings. The litany-like sequences and chains of phrases are quite similar at many points, though never reaching the excesses (of names, titles, and apparent nonsense-words) found in the Hekhalot literature. The central feature in common, of course, is the idea that the earthly participant is able to witness the Angelic worship and ritual that takes place around the Throne of God. The dating of the Hekhalot literature is difficult; the main texts (or macroforms) date from the early medieval period, but may contain material or traditions that go back to the 1st-2nd centuries A.D.

Another important line of tradition is the Enoch-literature, including the main Book of Enoch (1 Enoch), the later 2 Enoch, and the Hebrew 3 Enoch (which is also to be counted among the Hekhalot writings). This reflects a long line of tradition stretching back centuries. The rather cryptic reference to Enoch in Genesis 5:24 may indicate that there were already extensive Enoch-traditions in circulation by the early-mid 1st millennium B.C., though it is just as likely that the Genesis reference served as the basis for all the subsequent traditions. In any event, a central feature of the Enoch writings is a detailed description of the heavenly realm, which the exalted seer experiences as part of an extensive heavenly journey. The main Book of Enoch (1 Enoch) is a complex, composite work that was almost certainly composed over a long period of time, by different authors. The earliest portions probably date from around 250 B.C., while the latest were likely written by 100 A.D. The work was known by the Qumran Community, and may even have been regarded as authoritative Scripture; that it was also familiar to Christians in the 1st century is indicated by the reference in Jude 14-15, and by certain parallels elsewhere in the New Testament.

The Structure of the Songs

In my view, there is a clear three-part structure to the Songs:

    • Songs 1-5—In these five Songs, the setting of the heavenly realm is established, along with the “holy ones” in heaven; a comparison is also made with the earthly Temple/Tabernacle, and the “holy ones” (i.e. the Qumran Community, esp. its priests) on earth.
    • Songs 6-8—These three Songs form the heart of the work, with a central depiction of the heavenly Temple (Song 7), flanked by two Songs (6, 8) which present a series of praises and blessing by seven “Princes” of heaven.
    • Songs 9-13—In these five Songs, the heavenly Temple is described in detail, culminating with the inner Throne room of God, and the worship/ritual that takes place there.

Songs 1-5

In the first two Songs, the heavenly-setting is introduced, with the palace/temple and “holy ones” of heaven being compared with those on earth—a comparison that continues at least into the second Song. The theme of holiness is established from the beginning, along with the expression “holy (one)s”, and, in particular, the extended idiom “holy (one)s of the holy (one)s” (<yv!odq= yv@odq=). This is important because of the way it blends together three different ideas:

    • The supreme and complete holiness of God
    • The heavenly beings as “holy ones”, and
    • The sanctuary (i.e. in the Temple) where God dwells as the “holy of holies” (Exod 26:33-34, etc)

The double-plural form is best understood as an intensive—i.e., “the most holy (place), most holy (ones)”. This expression occurs multiple times in the main portion that survives from Song 1 (4Q400 fragment 1, col. i.1-21 = 4Q401 fr. 15). The parallel between the “holy ones” (i.e., heavenly beings) and the “holy of holies” (Temple sanctuary) is key to understanding the visionary landscape of the Songs. Unlike the earthly Temple, made of physical objects and lifeless furnishings, the heavenly Temple is made of living beings—that is to say, of the heavenly beings or “holy ones”, and the ones closest to God’s throne are the holiest of these. The heavenly “holy ones” are all to be understood as “spirits”. In column ii of the same fragment, the phrases “spirit [j^Wr] of all…” and “holy ones of the holy of holies” occur in close proximity (lines 5-6).

Nothing certain survives of Song 3, and very little of Song 4, so there is no way of knowing exactly what these portions contained. Also quite uncertain is the nature of the 5th Song, though it seems to provide a parallel of sorts with Song 1. This would make sense if, as indicated above, Songs 1-5 represent a distinct unit. One interesting detail is the mention of the multi-colored material (hmqwr) in connection with the “inner chamber” of the King (God); this certainly alludes to the decoration of the Tabernacle/Temple sanctuary and the curtain at its entrance, and is an important part of the parallel between the earthly and heavenly sanctuaries. The largest fragment of Song 5 (4Q402 fr. 4 = Mas1k i.1-7) would seem to emphasize God’s work as Creator, especially in the creation of the heavenly beings. The references to warfare (lines 7-10) may relate to the ancient cosmological myth that defines the creation of the universe as the product of conflict (among the deities) in heaven. However, I think it perhaps more likely that these references simply allude to the traditional role of the heavenly beings as “armies” who will fight on God’s behalf; in the eschatological battle depicted in the War Scroll (1QM), the “holy ones” of heaven join with the “holy ones” on earth (i.e. the Qumran Community) to defeat the forces of darkness.

Songs 6-8

As noted above, Song 7 is the center of the entire work, preceded and followed by parallel Songs (6, 8) which consist of a series of praises and blessings uttered by seven “Princes” of heaven. Possibly the number seven, apart from its symbolic and traditional importance (cf. in the book of Revelation, etc), refers to the cosmology of the time, with the idea of seven concentric heavenly domains (or spheres), and God dwelling at the highest point. Certainly the Hekhalot literature (cf. above) makes much use of this cosmological framework; given the basic similarities with the Songs in other respects, it seems likely that a similar framework may be in view here—seven heavenly realms, each with a pair of “Princes” who govern it. Songs 6 and 8 have precisely the same format; in Song 6 the praises/blessings are uttered by seven “chief Princes”, while in Song 8 the praise comes from seven corresponding Princes who are identified specifically as priests (of the interior) and called “wondrous second Princes”. The distinction with the first group of seven is not entirely clear, but it may reflect the Priest-Ruler dual leadership emphasized in the Qumran texts.

Song 7 is the center-point, and we are fortunate that at least two substantial sections have been preserved. The first of these (4Q403 fr. 1 col. i.30-47 = 4Q404 3-5 + 4Q405 4-5, 6) contains the opening of the Song and a two-fold invocation: (1) to all the “holy ones” in the heavens (lines 31-40), and (2) to those beings which make up the heavenly ‘Temple’ (41-47). These “holy ones” are also called spirits— “spirits of understanding” (line 37) and “spirits of righteousness (line 38). Moreover, the living beings which form the heavenly Temple and sanctuary are also “spirits” (of perfect knowledge and light). As noted above, the spirits in the sanctuary would have been considered especially holy, and this seems to be expressed in lines 44ff; here I cite Davila’s reconstruction of the text (p. 124) in translation:

“Most hol[y spi]rits, living divinities, [ete]rnal holy spirits above all the hol[y ones… of wonder, wonderful of effulgence and ornament. And wondrous is the God of gl]ory in the light of perfect light(!) of knowle[dge] […in all wondrous sanctuaries. The spirits of God surround the dwelling of the K]in[g of faithfulness and righteousness. All] [its walls…in the holy of holies…”

In the separate fragment 4Q403 fr. 1 col. ii.1-17 (+ 4Q404 fr. 6), we seem to have a clearer sense of the structure of the heavenly Temple, consisting of seven exalted holy places (line 11, cf. above), along with a ‘tabernacle’ (dwelling) of the “exalted chief” that apparently stands as separate “holy place” before the entrance to the inner chamber (holy of holies). All throughout this space, and especially in and around the inner sanctuary, there are “holy spirits” —spirits of God, and even those holiest of the holy ones (“spirits of the holy of holies”, line 7f). It would seem that these spirits all appear in bright, fiery colors, drawing their life and energy from the spirit of God Himself. This last point is not entirely clear, but it is suggested by the fascinating wording at the beginning of this fragment: “…complete [i.e. perfect] light, multi-colored(ness) of (the) spirit of the holy of holies”. In any case, they are depicted as colorful flames that surround God’s throne in the inner chamber (line 9f). The spirits of the inner shrine all praise God together (lines 15-16).

Songs 9-13

The final 5 Songs provide a more detailed description of the heavenly Temple and sanctuary, culminating with a liturgical presentation of the praise/worship of God that takes place before His Chariot-Throne (Songs 12-13). The chariot-motif for the throne of God stems primarily from the visions in Ezekiel 1 and 10, as noted above. Throughout in these Songs there continue numerous references to the “spirits” who are the beings that comprise this living sanctuary, and especially those “spirits of the holy of holies” (11Q17 col. iv, etc) who surround the Throne of God. Those spirits who make up the curtain and floor, etc. of the sanctuary are especially glorious—spirits of light in various shapes, wondrous colors, etc. As we move in closer to the very throne of God, the praise of these spirits begins to grow quiet, and we even read of a “spirit of quiet” that emerges among these divine beings. From this quiet blessing (cf. the beginning portions of Song 12), a tumult of praise comes forth again, radiating outward into the entire heavenly realm.

In the concluding Song 13, the focus shifts from praise of God to the (sacrificial) ritual aspect of worship performed by the priests. On the heavenly level, of course, these are holy ones (Angels/spirits) who perform the ritual, but they have their corresponding form among the holy ones (the Qumran Community) on earth. These ministers perform their offerings in purity, with a “spirit of holiness” (vd#oq j^Wr, 11Q17 col. ix). The holy ones approach God in living garments that correspond with the colorful spirit-beings who form the curtains, etc, of the sanctuary—they have garments “of light of the spirit of the holy of holies” (4Q405 fr. 23 col. ii.8ff). They possess pure colors, with the substance/likeness of the “spirit of glory”.


From this study of the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice, as well as those texts and passages discussed in Part 1 of this article, it is clear that the Qumran Community had a very distinctive understanding of the “holy spirit”. On the one hand, it continued the concepts and terminology from earlier Old Testament and Jewish tradition, emphasizing the cleansing aspect of God’s Spirit, along with the close association with wisdom and spirit-inspired leadership. There were two main aspects to the role of the Spirit in the leadership of the Community—focusing on the priestly character of the Community, and the continuation of the inspiration of Scripture (the Torah and Prophets) through the inspired teaching/interpretation that took place within the Community.

However, in terms of the specific expression “holy spirit” (or “spirit of holiness”), the Qumran texts understand (and express) this almost entirely in terms of the holiness of the Community. The true members of the Community, by  their very nature (as “sons of light”), possess an upright spirit, given to them by God, even prior to joining. Upon entry, they are further cleansed (symbolically and ritually) by God’s holy spirit, and are made completely holy. The need to maintain this holiness and purity was central to life in the Community. Indeed, the Community itself, as representing the faithful ones in Israel, possessed a “holy spirit”. This emphasis on its holy character is best seen in the Community Rule (1QS) 8:20-21ff: it is a “Community of holiness”, led by a “council of holiness”, and comprised completely of “men of holiness” (or “men of complete holiness”), being established, in truth, by God’s own “spirit of holiness”.

I disagree with commentators (e.g., Charlesworth) who claim that the references to the “holy spirit” in the Qumran texts are a precursor to the early Christian concept of the Holy Spirit. I find little indication of this. Instead, the “spirit of holiness” appears to be one of many different “spirits” who function together to perform God’s will. Of course, all of these spirits are holy—they are among the “holy ones”, as is clear from the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice. There is no one “holy spirit”, but many holy spirits—those closest to God being the most holy (“spirit[s] of the holy of holies”, etc).

Thus I would maintain that, for the Qumran Community, there is an interesting example of the “one and the many” with regard to the “holy spirit”. On the one hand, the texts can still speak in traditional terms of the “spirit of (God’s) holiness” —that is, His own Spirit that is at work in the world. At the same time, this Spirit is manifest in many different ways and forms, through the different spirits that serve God on His behalf, in relation to His people (the Community). All of these are holy, but when one is emphasizing or focusing on this idea of holiness or purity, specifically, one can speak of a distinct “spirit of holiness” that is present in the Community, and is reflected in the “holy spirit” of the Community itself, along with the “spirits” of its individual members.

It is in the entrance ritual that the Qumran understanding of the “holy spirit” is closest to that of the New Testament and early Christianity. During the water-ritual (par. to Baptism), the “spirit of holiness” cleanses the individual from sin, and the person’s own spirit is thus made holy. The holy person then becomes part of a holy Community. The main difference in early Christianity was that the very Spirit of God comes to dwell within the person (and in the Community). I do not find anything comparable in the Qumran texts. Instead of the person’s own spirit being made holy, the emphasis is on the Spirit of God abiding in their spirit (and uniting with it). There is also, of course, the idea of the Holy Spirit as representing the continuing presence of the exalted Jesus in and among believers; this is thoroughly unique to Christianity, with noting remotely like it in the Qumran texts.

The Holy Spirit in the Dead Sea Scrolls: Part 1

As part of the celebration of Pentecost, I felt it worth including an article in the “Spotlight on the Dead Sea Scrolls” feature here on this site, dealing with references to the Holy Spirit in the Qumran writings. I addressed the subject briefly at the conclusion of the recent series of notes on “The Spirit of God in the Old Testament”, but I felt a more in-depth article would be appropriate, and should provide a valuable contribution to the overall study.

The Dead Sea Scrolls (esp. the scrolls/texts from Qumran) provide by far the most extensive repository of Jewish writings from the first centuries B.C./A.D. There is thus much more material available for study and for comparison, for example, with the New Testament and early Christian thought. This is certainly true in the case of the Holy Spirit.

As I discussed in the recent series of notes, while the Spirit of God is referenced numerous times in the Old Testament, along with the related concepts of God’s holiness and the cleansing that is produced by His Spirit, the specific expression “holy spirit” is extremely rare, occurring just twice (Psalm 51:11; Isaiah 63:10). In both instances, the literal expression is “spirit of (your/His) holiness” (vd#q) j^Wr, + suffix). Nor is the expression much more common in Jewish writings of the intertestamental period, being typically associated with special wisdom and understanding from God (Wis 1:5; 9:15, cf. also 7:22b-24; 2/4 Esdras 14:22). Perhaps the most notable instance of the expression (in Greek) is found in the 17th of the so-called Psalms of Solomon (17:37), where it is used in a Messianic sense (i.e. of the special inspiration of the Davidic Messiah), based largely on the wording in Isa 11:2. Also worth mention is the occurrence in Jubilees 1:21, 23, drawing upon the exilic prophecies (of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and deutero-Isaiah), and the message of restoration for Israel in the New Age, when God’s spirit would give a “new heart” to his people.

In the Qumran texts, the Hebrew/Aramaic term j^Wr occurs nearly 250 times, most frequently in reference to the human spirit—that is, the life-breath or “spirit” within a person. Where the expression “holy spirit” occurs, it often remains closely connected with the “spirit” of the individual, or of the Community as a whole (cf. the discussion below). We find the same construct expression as in the Old Testament (cf. above), “spirit of holiness” (vd#q) j^Wr), but also the more literal “holy spirit” (hv*odq= j^Wr), with the feminine adjective.

The approach in the first part of this article will be to trace the usage of the expression in terms of the pneumatology of the Qumran Community, as it can be discerned from the surviving texts. In other words, in order to gain a proper understanding of how the Community viewed the “holy spirit”, it will be necessary to consider it in the context of their wider concept of (the) “spirit” (j^Wr). This is best done through an examination of the stages involved in the life of a member of the Community:

    1. The “spirit” in humankind generally (pre-Community)
    2. Entrance into the Community
    3. Life in the Community

1. The “spirit” in humankind generally

Almost certainly, the Qumran Community followed the basic line of Old Testament and Jewish tradition that associated the spirit of God with the work of Creation (Gen 1:2 etc; cf. Judith 16:14; 2 Baruch 21:4; 23:5; 2/4 Esdras 6:39). In particular, it was God’s own spirit-breath that instilled the spirit-breath into human beings (Gen 2:7; Job 33:4, etc). This is referenced extensively in the Qumran Hymns (Hodayot, 1QH), especially in hymn/column 9 (previously 1). At creation, God fashioned all “spirits” (9.8-9) —both of Angelic/heavenly beings (9.10-11) and humans (9.15). The creation of the human spirit is described in more detail in lines 27-28, framed strongly in religious/ethical terms:

“…to you, Mighty (One) [i.e. God] of knowledge, (belong) all works of justice/righteousness, and the foundation of truth; but to the sons of man (belong) the service of crookedness and the works of deception. You created spirit/breath [j^Wr] on/in (the) tongue, and you know its words; you established (the) fruits of (the) lips, before their coming to be…”

The general corruption and wickedness of humankind, from virtually the beginning of creation, is alluded to here. This is important for establishing the religious worldview of the Qumran Community. While human beings possess a spirit from God, the vast majority have defiled and corrupted it, turning away from God’s truth in favor of wickedness and deceit. Even so, for those who choose to remain faithful, God will strengthen their spirit (line 32) so they are able to remain pure from sin, even in the face of affliction. The emphasis on the “tongue” and “lips” focuses on the communication of truth. The pure and righteous ones will give a proper account of God’s work (line 33), making known His wonders and His truth. Implicit in this is a heavy reliance on Wisdom tradition, though the preferred term here appears to be lk#c# (“understanding, insight”). In this line of tradition, God’s Wisdom is practically synonymous with His Spirit, and, similarly, the human “spirit” is understood primarily in terms of wisdom, knowledge and understanding—cf. for example, in line 31 where the expression “mouth [i.e. measure] of understanding” is parallel to “mouth [i.e. measure] of their spirit(s)” in 1QS 2:20, 9:14.

In the Community Rule document (1QS), which is an essential work for establishing the religious identity and organization of the Qumran Community, the spirit of humankind is understood from a dualistic standpoint. 3:13-4:26 of this text represents a distinct unit—the so-called “Treatise of the Two Spirits”; the key anthropological principle is stated in 3:17-19:

“He [i.e. God] created human(kind) to rule the world, and set in him two spirits [tojWr yT@v=], (so as) to walk about with them, until the appointed (time) of His visitation. They (are) the spirits of truth and perversion.”

This dualism in human beings corresponds to a similar dualism in the heavenly realm—i.e., spirits of Light and Darkness, led by a “Prince” of Light and a Messenger (i.e. Angel) of Darkness (3:20ff). On the one hand, people must choose whether to walk the path of light or darkness—that is, these two “spirits” represent competing forces over the human heart—yet, at the same time, there is a strong predestinarian emphasis in the Qumran texts, with the idea that certain people simply belong to one group or the other (“sons of light” or “sons of darkness”). Early Christians adopted a similar “Two Ways” principle, attested in the teaching of Jesus (Matt 7:13-14, etc), the writings of Paul (e.g., Gal 5:16-26), and elsewhere (cf. most clearly in Didache 1-6). The way of the Spirit of Truth is described in 4:2-8, while that of the Spirit of Perversion is laid out in 4:9-14. This inner conflict has raged throughout human history, all the way to the “appointed moment” of God’s visitation at the end-time (4:15-26). The Qumran Community had a strong eschatological orientation (as did the early Christians), and viewed themselves as the faithful ones of the end-time, a time generally characterized otherwise by faithlessness and corruption.

2. Entrance into the Community

In this Age of increasing wickedness, the Community represented a refuge for the faithful—those committed to observing the Torah and purifying themselves for the time of God’s visitation. Probably the best guides for understanding how the Community viewed itself—its religious self-identity—are the so-called Damascus Document (CD/QD) and the Community Rule (1QS). There are other related Rule-documents that have survived, but in many ways their contents are supplemental to the portrait provided by these two major texts.

The Damascus Document is known both from its Qumran manuscripts (collectively labeled QD), and from a separate version discovered in Cairo (CD). This suggests that the Qumran Community was part of a wider religious movement, identified by many scholars as Essene (though this identification, often taken for granted, is not without certain difficulties). There are a number of references to the “holy spirit” in this document, which clearly define the Community in relation to God, as those who remain faithful to the covenant. This religious self-identity is set within the context of Israelite history, identifying the Community as a faithful “remnant” in the land, taught by God’s holy spirit (“spirit of his holiness”, 2:11-12). These references will be discussed further below.

It is the Community Rule document which addresses, in summary fashion, the matter of those who wish to enter the Community (5:1-25). The very intention of joining signifies a willingness to: (a) turn away from the wickedness of the world, and (b) devote oneself to following God’s truth, in strict observance of the Torah. Even so, initiates have to be examined to see whether they are truly committed to following this path. It involves a binding oath, made publicly, to follow the Torah and the instruction/rules of the Community, separating oneself from all non-members and submitting to the Community’s authority in all things. This is described in terms of having their “spirits” tested in the Community (5:20-21)—a continuous process that takes place throughout their whole life and time as a member of the Community (cf. below).

Even though a person may belong to the “sons of light”, he/she is still subject to the conflict between the “spirits” of light and darkness (cf. above, on 1QS 3:13-4:26). Such a person is not entirely free from sin and evil, with the influence from the side of darkness/perversion being present in varying degrees, depending on the individual. Some are affected by it only a little, others to a greater extent—but it can never be the dominant influence for a true “son of light”. As an example, in the ‘horoscope’ document 4Q186, we read of persons whose “spirit” has “eight parts in the house of light” and “one part in the house of darkness”, and also the reverse (in the case of the wicked).

For this reason, it is necessary for the person who enters the Community to be cleansed from any and all wickedness. While this took place in a ritual context that involved bathing (going “into the waters”, 5:13b), part of a wider practice of ritual washing/ablution that was central to Community life (3:5, etc), the reality of it took place in the person’s spirit:

“For (it is) by (the) spirit of (the) true counsel of God (that the) paths of man are wiped away, all his crookedness, (enabling him) to look on the light of life. And (it is) by (the) holy spirit, for (the) Community [djy] in its truth, (that) he is made pure from all his crookedness. And (it is) by (the) spirit of straightness and lowliness [i.e. humility] (that) his sin is wiped away. And in answer of his soul to all the engraved (decree)s of God, his flesh is made pure th(rough) sprinkling with (the) water (that removes) impurity, and (so) to make itself holy with (the) waters of repentance” (3:6-9)

There are three different (parallel) references to a cleansing “spirit” in this passage:

    • “spirit of true counsel” (tma txu jwr)
    • “holy spirit” (hvwdq jwr)
    • “spirit of straightness and humility” (hwnuw rvwy jwr)

While it is possible that these are synonymous expressions for the cleansing Spirit of God, it seems more likely that they refer to different “spirits” that are manifest and work together to accomplish God’s purpose (on these “spirits” of light and truth, cf. above). In this regard, the pneumatology of the Qumran texts is more complex and diverse than that of the New Testament; however, there is here a clear and obvious parallel with early Christian Baptism, in which the cleansing action of the holy spirit of God occurs within the setting of the water-ritual.

3. Life in the Community

The member of the Community, already possessing an upright “spirit”, committed to the covenant and Torah of God, is thus cleansed—spiritually and symbolically—through the entrance ritual(s), and is made holy. It was of the utmost importance that this holiness of the Community be maintained and preserved. As part of this process, the “spirit” and the deeds of each member had to be tested continually, year after year (1QS 5:24). There was a strong sense of rank and hierarchy in the Qumran Community, to judge from texts such as the Community Rule (2:20, etc). The master/leader over each member was responsible for carrying out the necessary judgment “according to his spirit” (9:14-15ff); as each individual had a different “measure” of spirit, things had to be considered on a case-by-case basis. To the extent that a member fails to live up to their commitment, or falls away, it is due to a failure of their “spirit” (7:18).

Throughout the Qumran texts, references to the “holy spirit” (or “spirit of holiness”) are very much rooted in this idea of the holiness of the Community, as established and preserved by God. The Community saw itself as a holy remnant in Israel, the faithful ones of the end times. This eschatological orientation was paramount to the group’s self-identity, and the cleansing that occurs within the Community is a foreshadowing of the final cleansing that will take place at the end, at the moment of God’s visitation:

“Then God will refine, with His truth, all man’s deeds, and will purify for Himself the structure of man, ripping out all spirit of injustice from the innermost part of his flesh, and cleansing him with the spirit of holiness from every wicked deed. He will sprinkle over him the spirit of truth like lustral water (in order to cleanse him) from all the abhorrences of deceit and (from) the defilement of the unclean spirit…” (1QS 4:20-21f, translation García Martínez & Tigchelaar)

It cannot be stressed enough how this understanding of God’s “holy spirit” was centered in the holiness of the Community. It was a “community of holiness” (vd#oq dj^y~, 9:2), led by a “council of holiness” (vd#oq tx^u&, 8:21), and made up of “men of complete holiness” (vd#oq <ym!T*h^ yv@n+a^, 8:20); moreover, it was established, in truth, by the very “spirit of holiness” (vd#oq j^Wr) of God (9:3). The purpose of the Community was to preserve faithfully God’s covenant with Israel—something which the majority of the population had abandoned, but which the Qumran Community, as the faithful remnant of Israel, had been appointed (by God) to maintain. It was only in the Community that the Torah and the Prophets were correctly interpreted and explained, due to the special inspiration and insight that was believed to be present within the Community. Even as the truth in the Scriptures had originally been revealed by God’s “holy spirit” (“the spirit of His holiness”, 8:16), so, by extension, has its truth been maintained through the spirit-inspired teaching and instruction within the Community.

All of these themes and points are similarly expressed in the Damascus Document, in which the history of the Community is set within the wider context of Israel’s history. The past (and present) failures of the people are contrasted with the appointed role of the Community to remain holy and faithful to the covenant. The Community continues the Instruction by Moses (in the Torah) and the Prophets (“the holy anointed ones”), which God had taught to them by His “holy spirit” (2:12). Similarly, this “holy spirit” of the Community, once established, must be preserved—it must not become defiled, as the people defiled their “holy spirit” in the past (5:11ff). Any transgression or violation of the Torah means a defilement of this holiness; the importance of maintaining this constantly, throughout the entire Community is well-expressed in 7:3-4:

“…from one day to the next; to keep apart from every uncleanness according to their regulations, without anyone defiling his holy spirit, according to what God kept apart for them.” (translation García-Martínez & Tigchelaar)

In these instances, the expression “holy spirit” properly refers to the spirit of the righteous person (i.e. member of the Community), that has been purified by God, but is still in danger of becoming defiled (through lack of care and faithfulness). It is essentially equivalent to the purified “soul” (vp#n#) of the person, as the comparable wording in 12:11 makes clear. As in Israelite religious tradition, the defilement of one individual means that the Community as a whole becomes defiled; thus it is vital that each member maintains the purity/holiness of his own soul.

The Qumran Hymns (Hodayot)

These ideas can also be found in the Qumran Hymn collection (1QH), though within a more personal mode of expression. The Hymnist represents the Community as a whole (and especially its leadership), speaking with a single voice. It has been thought that the leading/founding figure known as the “Teacher of Righteousness” may have composed some of these hymns, though there is no way to be certain. It is also hard to be sure whether the references to the “(holy) spirit” simply relate to the Community as a whole, or if, to some extent, they apply to special inspiration (knowledge, insight, revelation) possessed by certain teachers (or the “Teacher” himself). Christian commentators face a similar dilemma in analyzing certain passages in the New Testament, regarding the role of the Spirit, etc—does it apply only to uniquely-inspired persons (apostles, prophets), or to all believers?

Note: The hymns are organized by columns in 1QH, with each column, apparently, containing a separate hymn. I am following the column numbers in editions such as that of García Martínez & Tigchelaar; the older hymn-numbers (in the edition of E. L. Sukenik, etc) are indicated by the corresponding square brackets [].

In Hymn 4 [17], the protagonist praises God for having purified him from sin (lines 11ff), and for the “spirits” (of truth, light, etc) placed within him (line 17). This suggests a measure of special inspiration and insight that the hymnist possesses—but is this a reflection of what belongs to the Community as a whole, or is it something more? It would seem that the author/speaker stands for the entire Community, given the emphasis on being purified from sin, on remaining loyal to the covenant, etc. In the closing lines (26ff), he gives thanks again to God, declaring that “you have spread your holy spirit upon your servant”; unfortunately, the gaps (lacunae) in the text make it difficult to determine the exact context of this statement. Presumably, the same idea is expressed in 5 [13].24-25:

“And I, your servant, have known, thanks to the spirit you have placed in me […] and all your deeds are just, and your word does not depart…” (translation García Martínez & Tigchelaar)

The dynamic outlined in 1QS 3:13-4:21 (cf. above), of the conflict between the spirits of good and evil in the soul of humankind, is referenced again in Hymn 6 [14].11-12ff. The members of the Community (and especially its leaders), have an ‘enlarged’ spirit, with a share almost entirely of the good (and little if any of the evil). This is due to God’s own action, by the “spirit of (his) holiness” (line 13); the hymnist claims to possess special insight in this matter, presumably as (representing) an inspired leader of the Community.

The opening lines of Hymn 8 [16] are quite fragmentary, but they contain several references to the “holy spirit” of God (“spirit of your holiness”, lines 10-11, 15), concluding with a prayer by the hymnist that he be strengthened by the holy spirit, so as to serve God faithfully, adhering closely to the truth of the covenant. Line 20 contains a similar request for God to “purify me with the spirit of your holiness”, suggesting the need for continual and regular cleansing as a member of the Community (on the danger of sin, cf. lines 22-23ff).

Hymn 15 [7] is written more consistently in the style of the Old Testament Psalms, utilizing many traditional expressions and motifs. The prayer of thanks in line 6ff is similar to that of 4 [17].26ff, including the idea of God “spreading” His holy spirit “over” the hymnist—implying strength, support, and protection, so that he is able to remain loyal and faithful to the covenant. The same basic thought is expressed in Hymn 17 [9].32, only including the idea that the holy spirit of God also brings delight.

In Hymn 20 [12], the protagonist identifies himself as a lyK!c=m^ (line 11), one who possesses special understanding and insight (lk#c#, cf. above). While this may be true of the Community as a whole, here a particular individual (teacher/leader) seems to be in view. He claims a special knowledge of God, which the “God of knowledge” has Himself established (lines 10-11), through “the spirit which you gave in me”. The hymnist states that he has listened carefully and faithfully to this spirit—identified as God’s “holy spirit” —which involved the revelation of a wonderful secret (zr*), and knowledge of the “mystery” of God’s wisdom (lines 12-13). If the “Teacher of Righteousness” was the author of this hymn, it would certainly be fitting.

In closing, it is worth mentioned several other passages in the Qumran texts where the expression “holy spirit” occurs:

    • In the so-called “Rule of Benedictions” (1QSb [28b]), a kind of supplement to the Community Rule documents, a series of blessings is presented, presumably to be used in various (ritual) settings in the Community. We read the following blessing in 2:24: “May He show favor (to) you with (a/the) spirit of holiness…”.
    • The tiny text-fragment 1Q30 mentions “the spirit of holiness”, though the exact context cannot be determined; it likely relates to the organization of the Community (cf. the wording of the [possibly] related text-fragment 1Q31).
    • In another tiny fragment (1Q39), the surviving portion ends with the phrase “by/with (the) holy spirit”.

In the next part of this article, we will turn to an entirely different series of texts, dealing with the idea of God’s “holy spirit(s)” in a specific ritual setting, focusing on the so-called “Angelic Liturgy” or “Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice”.

Note: In preparing this study, I have found quite helpful the article by Robert W. Kvalvaag, “The Spirit in Human Beings in Some Qumran Non-Biblical Texts”, in Qumran Between the Old and New Testaments (Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, Supplement Series 290), eds. Frederick H. Cryer and Thomas L. Thompson, Sheffield Academic Press (1998).

References above marked “García Martínez & Tigchelaar” are to The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition, edited by Florentino García Martínez and Eibert J. C. Tigchelaar, Brill/Eerdmans (1997-8).



Notes on Prayer: Acts 4:23-31

Among the speeches (and sermon-speeches) in the book of Acts, that of 4:23-31 is properly not a speech, but a prayer to God. One might even make the claim that it is the earliest Christian prayer on record. Certainly, to the extent that what the author presents in these verses accurately reflects the historical situation, such a claim would be justified. The prayer-speech in 4:23-31 is, however, a literary work more than it is a stenographic record of what was said at the time. It takes the words, thoughts, and sentiments of the early Jerusalem Christians, and presents them as a single voice. This is appropriate, since the narrative in chapters 1-8 repeatedly emphasizes the unity of believers—how they were all of a single mind and purpose, best expressed by the use of the term o(moqumado/n (“[with] one impulse”, cf. 1:14; 2:46; 4:24; 5:12; 8:6). This unity of thought and purpose is reflected in the prayer of believers, as indeed it should be for us today.

For the Monday following Pentecost (“Pentecost Monday”), I thought it worth providing a study, as part of the “Monday Notes on Prayer” feature on this site, of the prayer-speech in 4:23-31. In doing so, I have adapted an article from my earlier series on the “Speeches of Acts”. In considering the context of Acts 4:23-31, it is best to begin with an outline of chapters 3 and 4, dividing the overall arc into three distinct narrative sections, each of which contains a speech. 4:23-31 belongs to the third (final) section:

    • Introductory/Core Narrative—the healing Miracle (3:1-10)
    • First speech by Peter (3:12-26), with narrative introduction in v. 11 joining to v. 1-10
    • Narrative Summary (4:1-4)
    • Second Narrative (introduction)—Peter and John brought before the Sanhedrin (4:5-7)
    • Second speech by Peter (4:8-12)
    • Narrative Conclusion/Summary (4:13-22)
    • Third Narrative (introduction)—Disciples gather together (4:23)
    • Speech (Prayer) by the Disciples, addressed to God (4:24-30)
    • Narrative Summary (4:31)

Even if 4:23-31 is properly a prayer to God, it very much follows the same sermon-speech pattern that governs the other speeches in the book:

    • Narrative Introduction (v. 23)
    • Introductory Address, with kerygmatic detail (v. 24)
    • Citation from Scripture (vv. 25-26)
    • Exposition and Application (vv. 27-28)
    • Concluding Exhortation (vv. 29-30)
    • Narrative Summary (v. 31)

This confirms the literary character of the prayer-speech, and makes it unique and distinctive among the notable examples of early Christian prayer.

Narrative Introduction (verse 23)—this introduction also joins with the narrative in vv. 13-22, emphasizing succinctly several points which are key motifs in the book of Acts:

    • the disciples are loosed [i.e. set free] from (custody)—the opening participle a)poluqe/nte$
    • they go (return) to “th(eir) own (people)” [tou\$ i)di/ou$]—i.e. their fellow believers, gathered together (implied)
    • they give forth the message (a)ph/ggeilan) regarding what was said and done to them—part of the overall message/proclamation of the apostles

Introductory Address (verse 24)—this follows the same narrative pattern used in v. 23:

    • “and being loosed from (custody), they went…and announced….” (v. 23)
    • “and (the ones) hearing,… they lifted up voice…” (v. 24)

Here we also find the keyword o(muqumado/n (homothumadón), mentioned above— “of one impulse” (or, “of one mind, of one accord”), used numerous times throughout the early chapters of Acts (1:14; 2:46; 5:12; 8:6) to express Christian unity and solidarity.

Since vv. 23-31 represents a prayer (and not an ordinary speech), the address is not to a surrounding crowd, but to God. Parallels to this prayer in Isaiah 37:16-20; 2 Kings 19:15-19 (Hezekiah’s prayer) have been noted, and the author (or an underlying tradition) may have used the OT passage as a pattern; note also similarities of language in Psalm 146:6; Neh 9:6. The title despo/th$ (despót¢s), “master, ruler”, used in addressing God, is somewhat rare in the New Testament, though by no means uncommon (Lk 2:29; 1 Tim 6:1-2; 1 Pet 2:18, etc). For the use of this conventional, ritualistic language for God as Creator elsewhere in early Christian preaching, see esp. Acts 14:15.

Citation from Scripture (verses 25-26)—this is from Psalm 2 (vv. 1-2), one of the most popular and often-cited “messianic” Psalms in the early Church (see my earlier study on this Psalm), verse 7 being especially applied to Jesus (in Acts 13:33; Heb 1:5; 5:5, and Luke 3:22b [v.l.]). But verses 1-2 also seem early on to have been related to Jesus’ suffering and death, in much the same way that they are interpreted here in Acts 4:25b-26. Cf. on the Exposition below.

The text of Psalm 2:1-2 here matches that of the Greek LXX precisely. However, nearly all scholars and textual critics are in agreement that the sentence which introduces the Scripture (in v. 25a), at least as reflected in the ‘earliest and best’ manuscripts (Ë74 a A B E 33 al), is syntactically garbled, preserving a primitive corruption. This is not so obvious in standard English translations (which attempt to smooth over the text), but is readily apparent in Greek. A literal rendering of the text as it stands (such as in the NA27 critical edition) is nearly impossible:

“the (one who) of our Father through the holy Spirit (of[?] the) mouth of David your child, said…”

The Majority text (primarily much later MSS) reads simply “the (one who) said through the mouth of David your child…” But this is generally regarded as a natural simplification and clarification; for, if it were original, how could the apparent confusion in early, otherwise reliable MSS such as B et al ever have been introduced? There are a number of suggestions to explain the older text, such as mistranslation from an Aramaic original. An interesting theory holds that Acts was left in an unfinished state, and v. 25a had different drafts of the sentence which ended up being accidentally combined; indeed, there do appear to be three distinct phrases jumbled together: (a) “through our father (David)…”, (b) “through the holy Spirit…”, (c) “through David your child/servant…”. I am somewhat inclined to think that tou= patro\$ h(mw=n was originally a reference to God as “the One (who is) of our Fathers [pl.] (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob)”, as in Acts 3:13, but was subsequently misread as referring to David. The remaining confusion then has to do with the position (and place) of pneu/mato$ a(gi/ou (“[of] the holy Spirit”), either as a mistaken insertion, or as part of a complicated syntax which scribes found difficult to follow. Perhaps the original text (at least the basic sense of it) would have been something like:

“the (God) of our Fathers, (who) by the holy Spirit, through the mouth of David your child/servant, said…”

For more on detail on the text of v. 25a, see the UBS/Metzger Textual Commentary of the Greek New Testament (2d edition), pp. 279-281.

Exposition and Application (verse 27-28)

The key verb from Ps 2:1-2 (suna/gw, “lead/bring together”) is given in emphatic position in verse 27: “For upon truth [i.e. truly] they were brought together [sunh/xqhsan]…”, using the same form of the verb as in the Psalm (cf. also a similar use earlier in 4:5). The expression e)p’ a)lhqei/a$ (“upon truth, truly”) is common in the LXX and is used elsewhere in Luke-Acts (Lk 4:25; 20:21; 22:59; Acts 10:34); here it emphasizes the fulfillment of the Psalm (understood as prophecy). The specific application continues with the next phrase—”in this city, upon your holy child Yeshua whom you anointed…” The use of “child/servant” (pai=$) and the image of Jesus specifically as “Anointed” (xristo/$, here the verb xri/w [cf. Lk 4:18; Acts 10:38]) echo kerygmatic statements in the earlier sermon-speeches (in Acts 3:13, etc). Also expressed previously (cf. Acts 2:23), is the idea that the suffering and death of Jesus took place according to the sovereign will, foreknowledge and (predetermined) plan of God (v. 28). There seems to be a precise fulfillment for each of the four groups mentioned in Ps 2:1-2:

    1. The Nations [i.e. Gentiles/non-Jews] (e&qnh)—in v. 27 the e&qnh are principally the Romans (i.e. Roman government).
    2. The Peoples [laoi/], originally synonymous with e&qnh, but in v. 27 clarified as the “peoples [pl.] of Israel” (i.e. the Jewish people collectively, or generally).
    3. The Kings [oi( basilei=$]—here, king Herod (cf. Lk 23:6-12, otherwise Herod does not appear in the Passion accounts).
    4. The Chiefs/Rulers [oi( a&rxonte$]—i.e. the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, who plays a key role in the Passion narrative and early kerygma.

Originally, Psalm 2 was a royal psalm presumably set in the context of the inauguration/coronation/enthronement of the (new) king. The accession of a new king (often a child or young man) was typically an occasion when vassals and ambitious nobles might take the opportunity to rebel and carve out power or territory for themselves. This is the situation generally described in vv. 1-3; God’s response, with a promise to stand by the king and secure his rule, follows in vv. 4ff. The king was anointed (v. 2) and, symbolically, was also God’s son (v. 7)—two titles and expressions which, of course, caused this Psalm to be applied to Jesus from the earliest time.

Concluding Exhortation (verses 29-30)

As this speech is a prayer, the exhortation primarily takes the form of a request/petition to God: “And now [kai\ ta\ nu=n], Lord, look upon [e)pi/de]…” For the expression  kai\ ta\ nu=n, cf. 2 Kings 19:19 [LXX] and in Acts 5:38; 17:30; 20:32; 27:22; or a similar contextual parallel to the imperative e)pi/de, cf. Isa 37:17 [LXX]. There are two parts to the request:

    1. look upon [e)pi/de] their [i.e. the religious leaders’] threatening (words and action)s
    2. give [do/$] to believers [God’s slaves/servants] so that they are able, with all parrhsi/a… —to speak [lalei=n] God’s word (i.e. God speaking through the believers) —to stretch out [e)ktei/en] God’s hand, in order to bring about healing and for there to be “signs and wonders”

They clearly ask to be made instruments of God’s own work and power, with the emphasis that miracles come to be done “through the name” [dia\ tou= o)no/mato$] of Jesus (cf. Acts 2:21, 38; 3:6, 16; 4:7, 10, 12, 17-18). Note also the references again to Jesus as “holy” [a%gio$] and “child/servant” [pai=$], titles characteristic of early Gospel preaching in Acts.

Two other expressions are worthy of special notice:

    • the term parrhsi/a, “speaking out (with) all (freedom/boldness)”, i.e. “out-spokenness”—a key word in Acts (cf. 2:29; 4:13, 31, and again in the concluding verse 28:31); it implies speaking openly, in public.
    • “speak the word (of God)” [lalei=n to\n lo/gon]—a common theme and expression in the book, cf. Acts 4:29, 31; 8:25; 11:19f; 13:46; 14:1, 25; 16:6, 31; and similarly (with variation) in several dozen other verses. Lo/go$, typically translated “word” is perhaps better rendered “account”, as this emphasizes the descriptive and narrative element central to early Gospel preaching and proclamation.

Both of these details appear together again at the end of verse 31 (below).

Narrative Summary (verse 31)

“And (on) making their need (known) [i.e. making their request], the place in which they were brought together was shaken, and they all were filled (full) of the holy Spirit and spoke the word/account [e)la/loun to\n lo/gon] of God with all (freedom/boldness) of speech [parrhsi/a$].”

This verse echoes the earlier manifestation of the Spirit in the Pentecost narrative (Acts 2:1-4); the common elements are:

    • The disciples are all together (in one place) [2:1, the expression e)pi\ to\ au)to/]
    • The manifestation of the Spirit is accompanied by theophanous elements—in 2:2 there is the sound of a mighty wind and appearance of fire; in 4:31 there is shaking (saleu/w), as of an earthquake.
    • The disciples are all filled with the holy Spirit (2:4)

Shaking (or an earthquake) is a common feature of God’s manifestation (theophany) to human beings—cf. Exodus 19:18; 1 Kings 19:11; Isa 6:4; also Josephus Antiquities 7.76-77. This sort of divine appearance in response to prayer may not have a precise parallel in the Old Testament, but it is certainly common enough to ancient religious thought (and experience)—for examples from the Greco-Roman world, cf. Ovid Metamorphoses 15.669-72, Virgil Aeneid 3.88-91 [for these and several other references above, I am indebted to E. Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles (Westminster Press: 1971), pp. 226-229].

Acts 2:1-4 and 4Q376

Acts 2:1-4 and 4Q376

One of the most striking features of the Pentecost narrative in Acts 2:1-4ff is the description of the coming of the Spirit upon the early believers as they are gathered together. The details are evocative of the ancient Near Eastern theophany (spec. the storm theophany) tradition, such as the famous Sinai theophany of Exodus 19-20. These details indicate the manifestation of God (El-YHWH): His presence on earth among His people, expressed through imagery associated with the storm—clouds, wind, thunder, fire, etc. Traditionally, the Sinai theophany, which marked the establishment of the covenant between YHWH and Israel, was associated with the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost); on the dating in support of this, cf. Exod 19:1; 2 Chron 15:8-15. The Torah, which served as the terms of the covenant, was given to the people (through Moses), in the context of this theophany (Exod 19-23), and the covenant was ratified in YHWH’s presence (chap. 24).

The Pentecost scene and narrative in Acts draws upon this line of tradition, only now it is a new covenant established among God’s people—who are believers in Christ. God is manifest through the presence of His Holy Spirit, and, just as the Torah was given at Sinai, so now the Gospel is proclaimed to all the people, as they are gathered together. The believers (the apostles and others) are the vehicle for this new manifestation of God’s presence; the Spirit comes upon them all collectively, as a Community, rather than upon one chosen individual (Moses).

The theophanous details in the Acts narrative are indicated in verses 2 and 3:

“And there came to be, without (any) shining (in advance) [i.e. unexpectedly], a sound (from) out of heaven, just as (of) a violent wind [pnonh/] being carried (along), and it filled the whole house (in) which they were sitting; and there was seen by them, being divided throughout, tongues as if of fire [glw=ssai w(sei\ puro/$], and it sat upon each one of them…”

The coming of the Spirit is marked by sound (a roaring) and the idea of wind (play on the related words pnoh/ and pneu=ma) blowing through the house, but is indicated more directly and immediately by the image of “tongues of fire” resting upon each of the believers. The motif of tongues is certainly related to the phenomenon of the early Christians miraculously speaking in tongues (i.e. other languages). Indeed, there is word-play of this sort throughout these verses; note the parallels:

    • Believers sitting (kaqh/menoi) together
      • The sound of the rushing wind (pnoh/) filled (e)plh/rwsen) the house
        • The tongues (glw=ssai) of fire came upon the believers
    • The fire (of the Spirit) sat (e)ka/qisen) upon each believer
      • The believers were filled (e)plh/sqhsan) with the holy Spirit (pneu=ma)
        • They began to speak in other tongues (glw=ssai)

While this may explain the use of “tongues” to describe the coming of the Spirit in the form of fire (cf. Matt 3:11 par), it is worth noting that the expression “tongues of fire” is attested in at least two other texts from the first centuries B.C./A.D. While the basic image is perhaps natural—i.e., a flame in the shape of a tongue, along with the idea of fire devouring/consuming (like a mouth), etc—it is interesting to consider how the expression itself is used.

4Q376 / 1Q29

The corresponding Hebrew expression (vva@ tonv)l=, “tongues of fire”) occurs in the Qumran text 4Q376 (= 1Q29). This small text-fragment provides an interesting example of the difficulties involved in trying to determine the context and nature of many of the Dead Sea Scroll writings. At least one fragment survives, preserving portions of three columns; what survives of each column is different enough for it to be unclear just how the text of the columns is related.

Column 1

This snippet (requiring some restoration) apparently refers to a sacrificial priestly ritual, involving the Urim and Thummim:

“[…and before the de]puty of the anointed priest […a young bul]lock from the herd and a ram […] […] for the Urim”

The expression “anointed [j^yv!m*] priest” is perhaps significant, given the evidence at Qumran for an Anointed (Messianic) priest figure-type as part of the Community’s Messianic expectation (cf. Part 9 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”).

Column 2

“[…] the stone, like […] […]they will provide you with light and he will go out with it with tongues of fire; the stone of the left side which is at its left side will shine to the eyes of all the assembly until the priest finishes speaking. And after [the cloud (?)] has been removed […] and you shall keep and d[o al]l [that] he tells you. And the proph[et…] […] who speaks apostasy […] […Y]HWH, God of […]”
The words in italics above represent the corresponding parts of the same text (presumably) in 1Q29 which go beyond what is preserved in 4Q376.

This portion of the fragment preserves more substantial text, and includes the expression “tongues of fire”. The reference to the “stone of the left side” suggests that a ritual involving the Urim and Thummim (Exod 28:30, etc) is still in view. The ‘shining’ of one stone or the other (on the right or left side) indicated the will of God. This oracular technique, of which we have little actual detail in the Old Testament, was reserved for the priests (Lev 8:8; Num 27:21; Deut 33:8, etc). The reference to a (false) prophet, in the corresponding portion of 1Q29, may reflect an intentional contrast between priest and prophet, with the priesthood being given a higher position of authority and access to God’s will. The text 4Q375, which many commentators feel is related in some way to 4Q376, deals specifically with the question of how to determine the true prophet vs. the false (cf. Deut 13:1-5), and what steps must be taken in response.

Column 3

“in accordance with all this judgment. And if there were in the camp the Prince of the whole congregation, and […] his enemies, and Israel is with him, or if they march to a city to besiege it or in any affair which […] to the Prince […] … […] to field is far away […]”

It is hard to be certain, but the preserved portion in this column seems to give an example of the sort of priestly message that comes with the shining stone of the Urim/Thummim oracle. Such oracles would be consulted prior to the beginning of a military campaign, for example, and almost certainly the Urim/Thummim would have been consulted for this purpose (cf. 1 Sam 14:41; 28:6, and compare the consultation of prophets in 1 Kings 22:5-28, etc). The expression “Prince of the congregation” in the Qumran texts tends to have Messianic significance—i.e. the Anointed leader of Israel who will specifically have (political/military) leadership over the Community (as the faithful remnant of Israel) in the end-time. This part of the text may indicate the relationship between the Davidic and Priestly Messiahs of the Community, intended to illustrate how this will function in the end-time; the Priest receives the divine message and conveys it to the Prince for him to act.


In addition to the main fragment (cf. above), there are 6 additional tiny fragments belonging to 1Q29 (= 4Q376). Unfortunately, they are too small to add much to our knowledge of this writing. Fragment 2 seems to mention the stone on the right side (“the right stone”), corresponding to the “stone of the left side” that shines. In this context, we have the intriguing mention of “three tongues of fire”, a detail that further defines the expression “tongues of fire” in fragment 1 (= 4Q376 col. 2), above. It may be that the three tongues refer to the stone on the left side, the stone on the right, and the priest (in the middle?); there is, however, no way to be sure.

The remaining fragments, it would seem, tend to emphasis the role of the priest in conveying the will of God (YHWH) to the people (the Community). In particular, the (Anointed) priest is equipped to explain all that YHWH wishes, and that the people are to keep and observe this instruction. From the standpoint of the Community, this involves a correct interpretation and explanation of the Torah, but also of the other Scriptures (the Prophets). The prophetic emphasis in this text (cf. also 4Q375) suggests that there is also a special inspiration that belongs to the priestly leadership of the Community, which may have been expressed in the form of oracular messages. Admittedly, there is relatively little evidence for this charismatic aspect of the teachers/leaders of the Qumran Community, but it seems to have applied to the person known as the “Teacher of Righteousness”; and, to the extent that it was part of the religious/spiritual dynamic of the Community, it could form a certain parallel with the Spirit-inspired leadership (apostles, prophets) in early Christianity.

1 Enoch

The only other occurrence of the expression “tongues of fire” in Jewish literature of the period (as far as I am aware) is found in the book of Enoch (1 Enoch). In 14:9-10 and 71:5 the expression is part of a visionary description of the heavenly realm. On his journey through the heavens, the seer encounters a great wall, built of crystals, and “surrounded by tongues of fire” (14:9). He proceeds into this fire and approaches a crystal house, or palace, part of a complex that eventually leads to the Chariot-throne of God Himself (14:10-20ff). The reference in 71:5, is part of a similar description, in poetic form, composed almost certainly by a different author and at a later time.

These references in the book of Enoch make it likely that the expression “tongues of fire” in 4Q376/1Q29 is part of a visionary/apocalyptic tendency, in certain Qumran writings, blending the heavenly realm together with the religious ritual of the Community. The Qumran Community very much considered itself to represent the “holy ones” on earth who functioned in tandem with the “holy ones” (i.e. Angels) in heaven, and this was part of the imagery in a number of texts, such as in the War Scroll and the so-called “Angelic Liturgy” (or “Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice”). As the inspired/anointed Priest ascertains and explains the will of God, he touches upon the heavenly realm (of God’s Throne and His Angels), and the oracular response of the Urim/Thummim (the “shining” stones) is accompanied by “tongues of fire” that mark the Divine/Heavenly presence.

It is quite possible that the narrative in Acts 2:1-4 is alluding to a similar line of tradition, and that, here too, the “tongues as of fire” are meant to convey the idea of the Heavenly/Divine presence at work within the Community.

The translations of the Qumran texts above are taken from The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition, ed. by Florentíno García Martinez and Eibert J. C. Tigchelaar (Brill / Eerdmans: 1997-8).

May 21: Wisdom 9:17, etc

Wisdom 9:17, etc

The this final note of the series, I felt it worth exploring the references to the spirit of God—and, in particular, the expression “holy spirit” —in the Deutero-canonical and extra-biblical writings of the intertestamental period. A survey of the evidence will show that the primary context of these references is rooted in Wisdom tradition—with a close association (even identification) of Wisdom with the holy Spirit of God.

This goes back to an ancient way of thinking, whereby a person possessing wisdom and discernment is seen as touched/inspired by a divine spirit (the word genius in English preserves something of this idea). We see this stated, for example, with regard to the leadership of Joshua (Deut 34:9, also Num 27:18), as also of Joseph, in his special ability to interpret the meaning of dreams, etc (Gen 41:38). To be sure, wisdom and understanding, such as is present in all human beings, reflects the role and presence of God’s spirit in creation (Job 32:8); even so, certain individuals are specially gifted with wisdom from God’s spirit.

The book known as the Wisdom of Solomon (or “Book of Wisdom”) is a Greek work from the first centuries B.C., which came to be immensely popular in Hellenistic Jewish circles and among early Christians, to the point of being regarded as authoritative Scripture by many. It is firmly rooted in Wisdom literature and tradition—both Israelite/Jewish and Greek philosophical. In such writings, Wisdom was frequently personified, either as a special manifestation of God Himself, or as a semi-independent Divine being. The famous hymn of Wisdom in Proverbs 8 is perhaps the most notable Old Testament example in this regard. The role of Wisdom in the Creation, with its life-giving creative power, is evocative of what is typically attributed to the Spirit of God (Gen 1:2, and cf. my earlier note). Thus, there is close association, at a fundamental level, between Wisdom and the Spirit, and this is certainly expressed in the Book of Wisdom as well—cf. the opening lines in 1:5-7; note also 7:22-24. The specific connection with the life-breath (spirit) given to humankind by God at creation, is mentioned in 12:1; 15:11, 16.

The expression “holy spirit” (a%gion pneu=ma) occurs in 1:5, where it is clearly synonymous with wisdom (sofi/a, v. 4). The passage seems to allude to the idea that the holy spirit (i.e. the spirit of God’s holiness, cf. the previous note) must depart when any wickedness or deceit (do/lo$) is present (cf. the earlier discussion on Ps 51:10-13). Wisdom is also characterized as a holy spirit in 7:22b-24, where its divine nature is very much in view. The other occurrence of the expression “holy spirit” is at 9:17, in the specific context of wisdom as a gift from God that touches certain individuals in unique ways. Persons (such as Solomon) who possessed wisdom and understanding to a high degree, were seen as having been specially inspired by God’s spirit (cf. above). The divine source of this wisdom is stated clearly:

“And who can know your will/counsel [boulh/], if not (that) you have given (him) wisdom, and sent your holy spirit [a%gion pneu=ma] from (the) highest (place)s?” (9:17)

The expression “from (the) highest places” (a)po\ u(yi/stwn) is reminiscent of Jesus’ promise that the Holy Spirit would come upon his disciples as power “out of (the) height(s) [e)c u%you$]” (Lk 24:49). Indeed, there can be no doubt that the coming of the Spirit, narrated in Acts 2:1-4ff, etc, represents a wider, more universal application of the tradition expressed in Wis 9:17, which there relates primarily to the special inspiration of certain gifted individuals.

We have already discussed the ancient principle of spirit-inspired leadership (of kings and prophets), as well as those individuals with special understanding, skill, and ability in certain areas—such as artistic production (Bezalel) or the interpretation of dreams (Joseph). In the latter case, we may note that what Pharaoh says of Joseph (in Gen 41:38) is essentially repeated, on several occasions, in the case of Daniel (4:8-9, 18; 5:11-12, 14; cf. also 6:3, and Susanna 45). The specific Aramaic wording in these references is worth noting:

“…(the) spirit of (the) holy Mighty (One)s [i.e. Gods] (is) in him”
HB@ /yv!yD!q^ /yh!l*a$-j^Wr

Aramaic /yh!l*a$ = Hebrew <yh!ýa$ (“Mighty [One]s”), a plural form which, when used of El-Yahweh, is best understood as an intensive or comprehensive plural (i.e., “Mightiest [One]”). However, on the lips of a Persian king, probably a normal (numeric) plural is intended (“Mighty [One]s”, i.e. Gods). At the historical level, the equivalent statement, coming from Pharaoh (rendered in Hebrew) in Gen 41:38, would also suggest a true plural:

“…(the) spirit of (the) Mighty (One)s [i.e. Gods] (is) in him”
oB <yh!ýa$ j^Wr

A different sort of inspiration is indicated in Sirach 39:6, where the faithful scribe—one who studies the Torah (and all the Scriptures)—will be granted a special “spirit of understanding” from God, which is equivalent to a divinely-inspired wisdom. Much the same is associated with the scribe Ezra, in 2/4 Esdras 14:22, when he asks God to “send the holy spirit” into him, so that he will be able to expound the Torah and Scriptures accurately for the people. On the association of the Torah with the spirit of God, cf. the earlier note in this series.

Finally, in terms of the association between the Spirit and Wisdom, it is perhaps worth mentioning Philo of Alexandria’s philosophical development of wisdom (and to some extent, the prophetic) traditions. This centers around the image of the divine spirit speaking (directly) to the mind, giving wisdom and understanding to the virtuous person—cf. On Dreams 2.252; 1.164-5; Special Laws 3.1-6; On the Cherubim 27-29; On Flight and Finding 53-58.


A brief survey of the remainder of the evidence from the first centuries B.C./A.D. may be summarized as follows:

The surviving Jewish writings of this period, many of which are pseudepigraphic in nature, rely heavily on the Old Testament Scriptures for their literary setting and context. Many Old Testament historical and prophetic traditions are continued, with little development, and this is certainly true with regard to the existing references to the Spirit of God or “holy Spirit”. In most instances, the earlier Scriptural traditions and passages are simply cited or integrated without much evidence of original treatment or development of thought. Indeed, some writings simply re-work the Old Testament narratives and Prophetic sections, and references to the Spirit in the Biblical Antiquities of Pseudo-Philo, or the Antiquities of Josephus, for example, do not go much further than this. The same may be said of the references in the various Scripture commentaries of Philo of Alexandria.

All of the main lines of Old Testament tradition, regarding the Spirit of God, that we have encountered in these studies, are found in the Jewish writings of this period. There is, for example, the idea of the Spirit’s role in Creation (e.g., Judith 16:14; 2 Baruch 21:4; 23:5; 2/4 Esdras 6:39), as well as the special inspiration given to the Patriarchs, Moses and the Prophets (1 Enoch 91:1; Testament of Abraham 4A; 1QS 8:15-16; Philo Life of Moses 1.277, 2.191, etc). If one were to isolate two tendencies that took on greater prominence in the intertestamental period, these might be defined as:

    • An increasing association on the Spirit with important figures from the past, rather than on the occurrence of dynamic, spirit-inspired leadership in the present. In this regard, it may be worth noting here the Rabbinic tradition in the Tosephta (So‰a 13:2-4) that, after the last of the Old Testament Prophets, the Holy Spirit ‘ceased’ operating in Israel.
    • Greater emphasis on the inspiration of Scripture, and the role of the Spirit in expounding/interpreting the Torah and Prophets—this was especially prominent in the Qumran Community (e.g., 1QS 5:9; 1QH 12:11-13), on which see further below.

One also finds a continuation of the post-Exilic emphasis on the spirit-inspired Community—that is, Spirit of God comes upon the people (community) as a whole, cleansing and purifying them (Jubilees 1:21, 23; Testament of Benjamin 8:3; Testament of Levi 18:10-12). There is often a strong Messianic association to this role of the “holy Spirit”, whereby the inspiration of the people reflects the special spirit-inspired status of the Anointed/Elect one (cf. 1 Enoch 49:2-3; Psalms of Solomon 17:37; Testament of Levi 18:7). Prophetic passages such as Isaiah 11:2ff, interpreted in a Messianic sense, were highly influential in shaping this tradition.

It is in the Qumran texts that we find the most significant references to the (holy) Spirit. As in many areas of thought and practice, there are numerous similarities between the Qumran Community and the earliest Christians with regard to their understanding of the Spirit. It is easy to imagine an early Jewish Christian of the 1st century, prior to accepting Jesus, holding a view of the Spirit much like that expressed in the Qumran texts.

The so-called Damascus Document (CD/QD), central to the religious history and identity of the Qumran Community, expresses the important idea of preserving the holiness of the Community. In this regard, the Community (which represents the righteous, faithful ones), already has a “holy spirit”, and there are stern warnings against defiling it—that is, of the need to maintain the purity of the Community and its members (5:11-13; 7:3-5; cf. also 12:11). Purity and holiness is restored through the cleansing that comes from God’s own holy Spirit, as stated in the Community Rule document (1QS 4:21). Even so, this spiritual cleansing is understood as taking place entirely within the context of the Community—that is, God’s spirit is manifest (and mediated) by the “holy spirit” that is upon the Community itself (1QS 3:6-8; 9:3-4). In the Qumran Hymns (1QH), this same idea of purification is given a more personal expression, in which the author/protagonist (representing the Community) recognizes the need for cleansing, etc, from God’s holy Spirit (e.g., VI [XIV].13-14; VIII [XVI].15, 20).


May 20: Isaiah 63:10-14

Isaiah 63:10-14

As we come to the end of these studies on the Spirit of God in the Old Testament, it is time to consider the specific expression “holy spirit”. For those who have not looked into the matter, it may be surprising to learn that this expression scarcely occurs in the Old Testament at all. Of course, the idea of God’s holiness is common enough, and the association of the spirit of God with water-imagery and cleansing (i.e., making things pure/holy) is attested in a number of passages, as we have seen. However, the actual expression “holy spirit” (lit. “spirit of holiness”, vd#q) j^Wr) is quite rare. I discussed its use in Psalm 51 (v. 11) in an earlier note; the only other occurrence is in Isaiah 63:10ff, which we will examine today.

Isaiah 63 is part of a complex set of oracles and poems, located within the broader context of chapters 56-66 (so-called “third Isaiah”, trito-Isaiah). The Deutero-Isaian themes associated with the restoration of Israel and return from exile, have been developed within a more pronounced apocalyptic and eschatological framework, much as we see in Zechariah 9-14. The restoration of Israel comes to be viewed as part of a wider canvas of end-time/future events, including the judgment of the nations (and also their conversion), and the inauguration of a New Age for God’s people (depicted in cosmic terms as a New Creation, cf. 65:17; 66:22). These themes are woven through the oracles, along with a continuation of older prophetic and historical traditions. We certainly see this in chapter 63, which features a summary of Israelite history (vv. 7-14) at its heart, similar in certain respects to what we saw in the prayer of Neh 9:6-37. The traditional juxtaposition of rebellion (i.e. breaking the covenant-bond) and restoration is expressed, in verses 10-14, in terms of the presence and work of God’s spirit (j^Wr):

“But they rebelled and provoked (the) spirit of His holiness [ovd=q* j^Wr], and (so) He turned (himself) to become an enemy to them (and) He made battle with them.” (v. 10)

The “rebellion” of the people, their violation of the covenant, is understood primarily in terms of religious unfaithfulness—that is, the syncretistic adoption/acceptance of Canaanite (polytheistic) beliefs and practices, rather than worship of YHWH alone. At the same time, this unfaithfulness was also realized in ethical and moral terms, marked by the (widespread) occurrence of wickedness and injustice within society. All of this was incompatible with the holiness of God, and necessitated a withdrawal of His protecting presence, and the bringing of punishment (in the form of military conquest) upon the people. Likewise in Psalm 51, it is sin that threatens the removal of God’s presence (His spirit) from the Psalmist. The same expression occurs there in v. 11: “spirit of your holiness” (i.e. “your holy spirit”). It is scarcely to be understood as a name or title; rather, the emphasis is on the holiness of God—as a quality, characteristic or (divine) attribute. If one were to view it as an abstract or absolute expression, then “holy spirit” would be seen as a shorthand for “spirit of the holy God”, or something similar (cp. Daniel 4:8-9, 18, etc).

The rebellion (and punishment) described in verse 10 is followed by the promise of future restoration, of a return of God’s holy spirit to dwell with His people. This is viewed as a return to the time of Moses, when the people were guided into the promised land by his divinely-inspired leadership:

“And (then) He remembered (the) days of (the) distant (past), (of) Moshe (and) His people. Where is the (One) bringing them up from (the) sea with the shepherd of His flock? Where is the (One) setting (the) spirit of His holiness in(to) his inner (parts)?” (v. 11)

The hope (and longing) is for a leader like Moses, one possessing within him the very “holy spirit” of God. This theme was central to the Deutero-Isaian oracles and poems, expressed, for example, in the ‘Servant Songs’, beginning in chapter 42 (on this, cf. the earlier note). It is proper to regard this as an early form and example of Messianic expectation—hope for the coming of a spirit-inspired anointed leader, following the type-pattern of Moses, the servant of God. The presence of God’s spirit is evidenced by the miraculous events leading to Israel’s salvation (vv. 12-13a). Ultimately, the people were brought to a place of peace and rest in the promised Land (vv. 13b-14), marked especially by the presence of God’s spirit:

“Like an animal going down in(to the) valley, (so the) spirit of YHWH made him [i.e. Israel] to rest (there). Thus did you drive along your people, to make for you(rself) a name of beauty/glory.” (v. 14)

Clearly the “spirit of His holiness” is the spirit of YHWH Himself, His very presence among His people. The future hope is that this will be realized again, with the restoration of Israel in a New Age, soon to come.

May 19: Zechariah 4:6; 12:10

Zechariah 4:6; 12:10

In these notes we have been studying the references to the Spirit (j^Wr) of God in the Old Testament, from the earliest historical traditions in the Pentateuch to the Exilic and Post-exilic periods. The most recent notes have examined, in particular, the role of the Spirit in the restoration-message of the 6th century Prophets (Joel, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Deutero-Isaiah[?]), and how this began to be realized in the Judean Community of the early (5th century) post-exilic period. The focus in Ezra-Nehemiah is very much upon the Torah as the foundation of this new (restored) Israelite/Jewish identity, and the recognition of the spirit-inspired character of the Torah (Neh 9:20ff, discussed in the previous note) confirms the close connection between the Spirit and the Torah in passages such as Jer 31:31-34 and Ezek 36:26-27. Preserving the covenant-bond with YHWH, demonstrated specifically by faithful observance of the Torah, is part of the “new heart” and “new spirit” given to the people, referenced in these restoration-oracles.

In a different way, the message of the earlier Prophets was continued in the post-exilic Prophetic writings of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, and this can be illustrated by the references to the spirit (j^Wr) of God in these texts. The situation surrounding the book of Zechariah is the most complex, due the composite nature of the work as it has come down to us. Most critical commentators would date chapters 9-14 considerably later than chaps. 1-8 (the visions and oracles of which are indicated as occurring 520-518 B.C.); the second half of the book would be dated after 515 B.C., and perhaps well into the 5th century (before 445?).

Zechariah 4:6 (Hag 2:4-5)

The oracle-vision in chapter 4 represents one of the earliest Messianic passages in the Old Testament—that is to say, it identifies present/future persons, according to a certain set of Prophetic traditions (regarding a coming king from the line of David, etc), as Anointed figures, in a manner that begins to approach the Jewish Messianism of the first centuries B.C./A.D. This foundational line of Messianic tradition (drawn from numerous passages in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, etc) was applied specifically to the ruler Zerubbabel and the priest Joshua. The Davidic lineage of Zerubbabel (whose name means something like “seed of Babylon”) is far from clear, a royal genealogy being indicated only in one late source (1 Chron 3:16-19). He is referred to as a hj*P# (i.e., governor of a city or small territory) in Haggai 1:1; 2:21, but his exact status in relation to the Persian Empire is not entirely clear. Certainly, however, he was a leader (along with the priest Joshua) of the Judean/Jerusalem Community in the early post-exilic period, being among a group of men who return to Judah, with permission from the Persian government, in order to rebuild the Temple (cf. Ezra 2:2; 3:2, 8; 4:2-3; 5:2). He is specifically paired with the priest Joshua in a dual-leadership role, in Haggai 1:12, a detail well-established enough to be preserved in later Jewish tradition (cf. Sirach 49:11-12).

In Zech 4, an oracle regarding Zerubbabel (vv. 6-10) is presented within a visionary framework—the vision of a golden lampstand flanked by two olive trees. The lampstand represents the presence of YHWH, in a symbolic/spiritual sense, while the two olive trees signify two anointed figures (v. 14)—that is, the anointed ruler Zerubbabel and priest Joshua. Not surprisingly, the message of the oracle relates to the rebuilding of the Temple, providing assurance that, the work having been begun (by Zerubbabel), it will be brought to completion (vv. 8-9). This is part a wider declaration regarding the divine presence that enables (and protects) Zerubbabel’s work, stated memorably in verse 6:

“This is the word of YHWH to Seed-of-Babel {Zerubbabel}, saying: ‘Not by strength, and not by power, but by my spirit [j^Wr], says YHWH of (the heavenly) armies’!”

It is by God’s spirit that this (the rebuilding of the Temple) will be accomplished, in spite of any difficulties or opposition that may be faced. Here we have a different side to the same basic restoration-message found in Ezra-Nehemiah (cf. the previous note). There it was the spirit-inspired Torah that was being emphasized, here it is the association of the spirit of God with the Temple—both represent fundamental aspects of the Israelite/Jewish religious identity that is being renewed and restored in the post-exilic period.

Since the Temple represents the presence of God as he dwells with His people, the association with His spirit is clear and natural enough. This aspect is brought out even more fully in Haggai 2:1-9, in which a similar message of exhortation is given to Zerubbabel (along with Joshua, and all the people) from YHWH, promising divine providence and supervision over the rebuilding:

“‘You must be strong…and do (the work), for I (am) with you’ —utterance of YHWH of (the heavenly) armies— ‘(by) the word (of the agreement) that I cut with you in your going forth from Egypt, and my spirit [j^Wr] is standing with you, (so) you must not fear!'” (vv. 4-5)

As a side note, the idea of the “(heavenly) armies” reflects an ancient image, the origins of which had long been lost by the time the book of Zechariah was composed. It essentially refers to El-Yahweh’s control over the powers of the sky/heaven, to the point that they will fight (as an organized army) on His behalf, and at His command. We see vestiges of it in the theophany-image of God (YHWH) residing in a chariot (cf. the chariot throne vision of Ezekiel 1). The vision in Zech 6:1-8 likewise preserves this symbolism, together with the specific idea that these heavenly chariots transport the spirit (j^Wr) of God (v. 8).

Zechariah 12:10

The oracles in Zechariah 12-14 continue the restoration-message of the exilic Prophets, but in a more developed form, drawing upon early apocalyptic and eschatological traditions, similar to those found in the books of Joel, Ezekiel and Deutero-Isaiah. In other words, the restoration of Israel is presented as part of a larger set of future/end-time events which encompass the judgment of the nations, the establishment of a ‘golden age’ of peace and prosperity, and so forth. The second half of Zechariah (chaps. 9-14) also shows signs of the development of an incipient Messianism—i.e., the expectation for the coming of a future Davidic ruler who will oversee the judgment/defeat of the nations and a New Age for Israel.

The multi-part oracle in chapters 12-13 refers to “that day” (vv. 3ff)—i.e., the “day of YHWH” from the nation-oracle tradition of the Prophets, but now expanded to become the moment when all the nations are judged together (cf. Joel 3). The nations will gather to attack Jerusalem (cp. 14:1ff; Ezek 38-39), but YHWH will bring salvation for Judah, as He Himself protects His people and will destroy their enemies (vv. 8-9). The eschatological nature, and cosmic dimensions, of this conflict are indicated by the allusions to the Creation account in verse 1. The end is a reflection of the beginning, and the New Age will entail a kind of New Creation (cf. Isa 65:17; 66:22; Rev 21:1). Even as God, by his own Spirit/Breath, gave the spirit/breath (j^Wr) of life to humankind (cf. the earlier note on Gen 2:7; Job 33:4), so in the New Age will He “pour out” His Spirit on His people (v. 10).

This is a well-established prophetic image, as we have seen in the prior studies on Isa 44:3; Joel 2:28-29, etc, and the oracle alludes to it here, by the expression “a spirit of favor” (/j@ j^Wr)—that is, of God’s favor toward His people. The water-imagery associated with pouring is made explicit: God will provide a fountain (roqm*) of water, flowing from the ground, for the people (and rulers) of Jerusalem (13:1). The primary purpose of this water is to cleanse God’s people from sin and impurity; as a result, the “spirit of uncleanness” (ha*m=F%h^ j^Wr) will be taken away from the land (v. 2). The association of the Spirit with water and cleansing is part of a longstanding tradition, and would become an important aspect of the imagery surrounding the idea of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament.

These references only confirm the increasing tendency, throughout the writings of the exilic and post-exilic periods, to connect religious reform with the presence and activity of God’s spirit. One final passage in this regard, from the book of Malachi, may be cited in closing. As part of an exhortation for a return to covenant faithfulness and loyalty, the prophet introduces the traditional metaphor of fidelity in marriage (2:14). The covenant is compared to a marriage-union, where two people become united in spirit; and, as the bond here is between humankind and God, the union entails a joining with the spirit of God (v. 15, cp. 1 Cor 6:17). Since a breaking of the covenant-bond involves a failure by human beings, not by God, the restoration must occur with the human spirit. Therefore the exhortation in verse 16 calls on the people to “be on guard with your spirit” (i.e. guard your spirit). The word j^Wr is used in both instances in vv. 15-16, for the spirit of God and His people alike.

May 18: Nehemiah 9:20, 30

Nehemiah 9:20, 30

In the previous note, we examined the emphasis on the spirit (j^Wr) of God in passages of the exilic Prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel, dealing with the future restoration of Israel/Judah. This restoration was defined in terms of a return from exile, and a re-establishment of the covenant bond between YHWH and His people. Faithfulness to the covenant would now be ensured by the action of God Himself, giving the people a “new heart” and a “new spirit” through the presence of His own Spirit (“my spirit” [yj!Wr]). As the Torah (hr*oT, the instruction of YHWH) represented the terms of the covenant, it would be of central importance to any faithful Community of God’s people in this ideal/future time of restoration. And, indeed, we can see the ideal acted out in the Judean Community of the early post-exilic period, as recorded in the books of Ezra-Nehemiah.

Ezra and Nehemiah were important leaders of the post-exilic Community in Jerusalem, each, in his own way, working toward the restoration-ideal of the Prophets. The customary chronology dates Ezra’s arrival in Jerusalem to 458 B.C., with Nehemiah arriving some 13 years later (445 B.C.). As governor of Judah, Nehemiah had greater authority, and appears to have sought to carry through the religious and cultural reforms introduced by Ezra (cf. the references to Ezra in Neh 8-10).

The hr*oT (tôrâ, Instruction, or “Law”) of God features prominently in Ezra-Nehemiah, central to the re-establishment of the Israelite/Jewish religious identity (see esp. Ezra 10:3). In Ezr 3:2; 7:6 and Neh 8:1 it is specifically called the “hr*oT of Moses” (i.e. ‘Law of Moses’), and clearly refers to a written work, since Ezra is said to be a literary expert (scribe) regarding this Torah (7:6, 21, etc); cf. also Neh 10:34, 36. Moreover, in Neh 8:1 we read of a “book of the Torah” (lit. “account of the Instruction”, hr*oT rp#s@), also occurring in vv. 3, 18, and 9:3 (cf. below). This expression is relatively rare in the Old Testament, occurring not once in the Psalms, Prophets, or Wisdom literature, etc, but only in Deuteronomy, and the historical books of Joshua, Kings, Chronicles, and Nehemiah. It is difficult to know for certain was is being referred to by the expression. Many commentators feel that it refers to some version of the book of Deuteronomy itself. However the Pentateuch contains other “law codes”, in written form—most notably those in Exodus 20:23-23:19, the “Holiness code” of Lev 17-26, as well as the other collection of laws and priestly regulations in Exod 25-31, 35-40, Numbers 1-10, and throughout the remainder of Leviticus.

In Neh 8:1ff, Ezra is asked to bring out this “account of the Torah”, so that it can be read before all the people. The words in v. 3 indicate a glimmer of fulfillment to the prophecies of restoration in Jer 31:31-34, etc: “…and the ears of all the people (were) to the account of the Instruction” (i.e., they were paying attention to it). Religious life was re-established through celebration of the festival of Sukkot (Booths/Tabernacles), and Ezra read from the Torah every day during the festival (vv. 13-18). Again, this written account of the Torah was read publicly, for several hours, on a day later in the same month, during a time of fasting and repentance (9:1-3ff). In this context, a great prayer is recorded (vv. 6-37), and through which is woven a history of Israel, from the call of Abraham to the present. The emphasis is on the repeated sins and failure of the people to live up to their covenant-bond with YHWH. As we have seen, this was very much part of the Prophetic message, related to the Exile and also the future restoration of Israel.

In this penitential survey of history, the Torah is alluded to in verse 20, in terms of the presence and activity of God’s spirit (j^Wr):

“And you gave your good spirit [j^Wr] to give them understanding [i.e. to instruct them]”

This arguably is the earliest reference to what we might call the inspiration of Scripture—that is, the spirit-inspired character of the written account of the Torah. To be sure, from the standpoint of the historical survey, it more properly refers to the inspiration of Moses as ayb!n`, or spokesperson of YHWH for the people. Just as God gave the people food to eat from heaven (the manna), so He gave them the Instruction (Torah) through Moses as a divinely-inspired intermediary (cf. the prior note on Numbers 11:10-30). Now, centuries after Moses, it is the written record of this Torah that serves to give guidance for the people.

Equally important, however, is the people’s response to that Instruction, during their history, after the settlement in their land. It is characterized ultimately as one of failure and disobedience (vv. 26-28). In verses 29-30, we can see how the role of the Prophets (<ya!yb!n+) is understood primarily in terms of exhorting Israel to restore them to faithfulness to the Torah. Just as Moses was a spirit-inspired spokesperson (ayb!n`), so too were the other chosen Prophets throughout Israel’s history:

“and you drew (out) upon them [i.e. remained patient with them] many years, and repeatedly gave (witness) among them by your spirit [j^Wr], by the hand of your <ya!yb!n+ [i.e. Prophets], and they [i.e. the people] would not give ear [i.e. listen] (to it)” (v. 30)

There are thus here allusions to the spirit-inspired character of both the Torah and the Prophets—representing the beginnings of the traditional pairing of “the Law and the Prophets”, as authoritative Scripture. The centrality of the Torah, however, is clear; the Prophets main role is to bring people back to the Torah when they have turned away from it (v. 29). It is an emphasis that is distinctly Jewish, and remains absolutely fundamental to the Jewish religious (and cultural) identity to the present day. Christians, of course, have always maintained the unique divine inspiration of the Torah as well, according to varying definitions. However, the place of the Torah in Christianity is not at all the same as it is in Judaism, and, sadly, many Christians have a poor understanding of the New Testament teaching (by Jesus, Paul, and others) in this regard. I discuss the matter at great length in the series “The Law and the New Testament”.

In the next daily note, we will turn to the book of Zechariah, for a different post-exilic treatment of the restoration-theme of God’s spirit at work among His people.