Jews in Babylon had to make sense of this event. If Yahweh, their god, truly did exist and furthermore was free in relation to the Olympian gods of Babylon, why did he allow the Olympian gods and their minions to win such a crushing victory over his own people? Had they not been enthusiastic worshipers of Yahweh at his temple in Jerusalem?
Yahweh had called men to serve as prophets to prepare his people for this extreme situation. Through these prophets, Yahweh had told his people that he had abandoned them to Olympian control because they had abandoned him in their devotion to the Olympian gods. He had simply granted them their heart’s desire. Their hearts had been far from him even when they had imagined they were worshiping him in the temple dedicated to him.
Shortly before their Babylonian exile, Yahweh had even sent the prophet Jeremiah to stand at the front door of the temple and to proclaim to the people entering it: if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever.
Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal [Canaanite name for Jupiter], and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, “We are safe!”—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says [Yahweh] (Jeremiah 7:5-11, New Revised Standard Version).
So, as part of their Olympian ways, Yahweh’s people had developed the Olympian habit of magical thinking. They had come to think that if they went to the right place on the right days with the right enthusiasm, and brought the right gifts to be sacrificed by the right people according to the right rituals, then they would be right with Yahweh and he would rightly protect their health and wealth. Right?
Wrong. Unlike the Olympian gods, Yahweh does not see himself primarily as a means to an end. He sees our relationship with him, and his relationship with us, as an end in itself; that is, as something intrinsically meaningful. Our willingness to perform religious ceremonies as some sort of insurance policy could not constrain Yahweh to remain blind to our rejection of him in our hearts. Despite our enthusiastic performance of magical acts, Yahweh allowed the Olympian gods we wrongly adored to triumph over us.
Yahweh nonetheless stayed with his people, consoling and strengthening them. Even though they had proven disloyal to him, he would remain loyal to them. He would redeem them, free them, restore them to Jerusalem at the right time. Fifty years later, he did.
For Jews of the second-temple period (537 BC-AD 70), this experience of prosperity, catastrophic exile despite enthusiastic ritual, and restoration meant no more magical thinking. It meant recognition of no necessary or automatic or even typical relationship between acts regarded as right and Yahweh’s blessing. As with Job, even truly righteous people might suffer gratuitously. As with Job, devotion to Yahweh remained intrinsically meaningful even when it wasn’t useful.
This lack of magical thinking amongst Jews challenged its persistent practice by Olympians with their plentiful priests, sacrifices, and sacred places. This implicit challenge led to an explicit movement of resentment toward Jews. In other words, simply by the clarity of their witness to the one true god, Jews became hated by people devoted to very conventional but false and deadly serious gods. Anti-Semitism grew. It increased in virulence as Jewish influence expanded under the Maccabees and across eastern Olympia.
For Jews, this meant no simple comfort through participation in familiar religious rituals. It meant even a willingness to accept suffering otherwise easily avoided by blending. This took a wisdom, strength, courage, and good cheer beyond easy optimism, superficial hand-wringing, and especially magical thinking.
(Today we continued our reflections on Norman Cantor’s The Sacred Chain: A History of the Jews [HarperCollins, pp. 39-45]).