Ezra Reads the Law to the People, one of Gustave Doré's illustrations for La Grande Bible de Tours
by Trent Dee Stephens, PhD, for the Come Follow Me lesson July 18-24; Ezra 1; 3–7; Nehemiah 2; 4–6; 8
We read in Ezra 1:1-3: “Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and put it also in writing, saying, Thus saith Cyrus king of Persia, The Lord God of heaven hath given me all the kingdoms of the earth; and he hath charged me to build him an house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Who is there among you of all his people? his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and build the house of the Lord God of Israel, (he is the God,) which is in Jerusalem.”
Upon what and in what language did Cyrus have the proclamation written? Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire, conquered Babylonia in 539 BC. His policies included respecting the customs and religions of the people he conquered. So, in 538 BC, he issued an order allowing the exiled Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple.1The so-called Cyrus Cylinder is an ancient clay cylinder, broken into several pieces, and currently on display in Room 52 of the British Museum. It contains a declaration in Akkadian cuneiform script in the name of Cyrus the Great. The text of the Cylinder allows for religious freedom of conquered countries and empires, but does not specifically mention Judea or Jerusalem. This may be the proclamation referred to in Ezra 1:1-3 or there may have been a separate proclamation, now missing. None-the-less, such a separate proclamation would almost certainly have been nearly identical to the Cylinder in the British Museum.
The Cyrus Cylinder in the British Museum
Cuneiform means wedge-shaped and refers to characters made by pressing a triangular stylus into a soft material such as clay or wax. The clay could then be hardened to make a permanent record. Cuneiform originated with the Sumerians, between the sixth and fifth millennium BC, the earliest known civilization in Mesopotamia. The Sumerian empire was replaced by the Akkadian empire of the 24th and 22nd centuries BC, which in turn collapsed into the Akkadian-speaking nations: Assyria in the north, and Babylonia in the south. The Epic of Gilgamesh, or the Sumerian Flood Story, is probably the oldest of all written stories. It was originally written on 12 clay tablets in cuneiform script somewhere between 2750 and 2500 BC. A facsimile of the 11th tablet is in the British Museum. It measures 6 inches by 5 ¼ inches and is 1 ¼ inches thick.2
The Babylonian captivity of the Judean intelligentsia lasted from March 16, 597 BC until 538 BC. These intellectuals apparently were taught in the Babylonian schools. Some biblical experts argue that much, if not all of the Old Testament was written during this period of captivity. What was taught in the Babylonian schools was based on a group of Sumerian texts from the Old Babylonian period. Those texts were part of the curriculum and were still being copied a thousand years later. Students began their schooling at an early age in the é-dubba, the “tablet house.” In addition to mathematics, the Babylonian schools focused on writing letters, contracts and accounts in Sumerian and Akkadian cuneiform.3
Students in the Babylonian tablet schools primarily used waxed boards for their writing lessons. The boards usually were made of wooden or ivory leaves, with two or more leaves hinged together to make an early version of a book. The depressed portion of each leaf contained a layer of beeswax mixed with some other substance, such as yellow ochre or orpiment (arsenic sulfide), which thickened the wax, creating a lasting writing surface. Students used styli, some bronze, to write on the wax pads. The tablets could be melted and reused or could be kept for extended periods of time. It is estimated that as much as one third of the Royal Library of Ashurbanipal, named for the last great Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal, in the 7th century BC, and rediscovered in 1849 near Mosul, Iraq, now mostly housed in the British Museum, consisted of wax tablets. Among its holdings was a copy of the Gilgamesh Epic on clay tablets. Although cuneiform script was originally created for writing on soft clay tablets and cylinders, it also was used on metal, stone, and other hard materials.4
So if the Judean scholars were carried away captive into Babylon, why was the Old Testament not written in cuneiform? Those scholars were carried off into Babylon, not to enhance their culture but to destroy it. Hebrew, as such, perhaps was not written until after the captivity – around the fifth century BC – although some may date to as early as the tenth century BC. Before the captivity, the Judean scholars were mainly speaking and writing Canaanite – after all, Jacob came from Canaan when he went to Egypt (Genesis 45:17-18) around 1800 to 1600 BC, and the Israelites were going home when Moses led them to Canaan in 1400 to 1200 BC. Written Canaanite was a repurposed version of a combination of Egyptian hieroglyphs and their cursive equivalent, called hieratic – thus “reformed Egyptian.” (Mormon 9:32) What we know about early Canaanite is based on fragments of writings from archaeological excavations. The oldest Canaanite writings discovered so far are from prehistoric mines on the Sinai Peninsula located between Canaan and Egypt, where the cultures would have mixed. Based on two somewhat more recent discoveries in the Wadi el-Hol, north of Luxor, in Egypt’s western desert, proto-Canaanite can be dated to around 1850 BC. Canaanite was the predecessor of Hebrew (including the Israelites, Judeans and Samaritans), Amalekite, Amorite, Phoenician, and even the Greek.5
We read in Exodus 24:4, 7, “And Moses wrote all the words of the Lord, and rose up early in the morning, and builded an altar under the hill, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel…And he [Moses] took the book of the covenant, and read in the audience of the people...” This was around 1400–1300 BC, and apparently before Moses received the first set of stone tablets, which he broke (Exodus 31:18; 32:15-16, 19), and the second stone tablets which were kept in the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 34:1; Exodus 25:16). When the ark was built, the “testimony” had not yet been given, “And thou shalt put into the ark the testimony which I shall give thee.” (Exodus 25:16) According to 1 Kings 8:9, the “testimony” was “…the two tables of stone, which Moses put there at Horeb, when the Lord made a covenant with the children of Israel, when they came out of the land of Egypt.”
So what did Moses write and then read to the people in Exodus 24? Upon what material did he write and in what language? I have perhaps already answered the last question – he may have written in proto-Canaanite or Canaanite, which was “reformed Egyptian.” However, Moses was raised as an Egyptian until he was an adult (Exodus 2:1-15), so he was almost certainly taught Egyptian hieroglyphs and/or hieratic and he may have written in that text. Writing was an intrinsic part of ancient Egyptian society, and their main material upon which to write was Papyrus, which dated from the fourth millennium BC. However, they also wrote upon clay tablets and rock surfaces, as well as wood, ceramic and metal.6
Tradition holds that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, but most modern scholars believe that it was written by several authors. It is likely that Moses wrote much of the Pentateuch, especially Genesis and the law, but that other authors added to the work over time. It may have been this early law portion that Moses wrote and then read to the people in Exodus 24. The Pulpit Commentary for Exodus 24:7 states: “In this book [Book of the Covenant] we have the germ of the Holy Scriptures - the first ‘book’ actually mentioned as written in the narrative of the Bible…Upon this nucleus the rest of the law was based; and it was to explain and enforce the law that Moses composed the Pentateuch.”7
Then we read in 2 Kings 23:1-2, “And the king [Josiah, c. 640–609 BC] sent, and they gathered unto him all the elders of Judah and of Jerusalem. And the king went up into the house of the Lord, and all the men of Judah and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem with him, and the priests, and the prophets, and all the people, both small and great: and he read in their ears all the words of the book of the covenant which was found in the house of the Lord.” Josiah was king shortly before Lehi and his family left Jerusalem and not long before the Babylonian captivity. The “book of the covenant” from which he read would almost certainly have been written in Canaanite. We don’t know upon what material it was written.
Papyrus, vellum, and wood are relatively short-lived, and finding even fragments of documents written on these materials is extremely rare in archaeological sites. The oldest papyri ever discovered to date are thirty 4500-year-old papyri fragments now in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The papyri were discovered inside caves at Wadi al-Jarf by a joint Egyptian-French archaeological team in 2013. They were written in the fourth dynasty, in the reign of King Khufu, for whom the Great Pyramid of Giza was built. The papyri contain hieroglyphic writing about the daily lives of pyramid workers, including transport of building materials on the Nile River and the tallying of food and other supplies.8
The oldest papyri ever discovered relating to Israel allegedly was found about ten years ago while authorities were pursuing antiquities thieves in the Judean Desert and dates to around the seventh century B.C. The fragment appears to discuss a wine shipment from Na’arat, in the Jordan Valley, to the king in Jerusalem. However, it has since been determined that the document is almost certainly a fake.9 Very few authentic papyrus fragments even date before the time of Christ, and early fragments of even the New Testament are extremely rare. I recall going to a display at the BYU Art Museum to see one tiny fragment of a New Testament text from the first century AD. The Dead Sea Scrolls date from the third century BC to the first century AD.
We are told in 2 Kings 24:11-14 that in 598/597 BC, “Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came against the city [of Jerusalem], and his servants did besiege it…And he carried out thence all the treasures of the house of the Lord, and the treasures of the king’s house, and cut in pieces [and probably melted down] all the vessels of gold which Solomon king of Israel had made in the temple of the Lord…And he carried away all Jerusalem, and all the princes, and all the mighty men of valour, even ten thousand captives, and all the craftsmen and smiths: none remained, save the poorest sort of the people of the land.”
Nebuchadnezzar then placed a puppet king, Zedekiah, upon the thrown of Jerusalem, but Zedekiah didn’t even last ten years before he rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar. So we are told in 2 Kings 25:8-9 that in 587 BC, “…came Nebuzar-adan, captain of the guard, a servant of the king of Babylon, unto Jerusalem: And he burnt the house of the Lord, and the king’s house, and all the houses of Jerusalem, and every great man’s house burnt he with fire.” Anything that hadn’t been taken to Babylon ten years earlier were now looted and hauled off (2 Kings 25:13-17). The Babylonians again broke the gold, silver, and brass objects in pieces and probably melted them down. No written records are mentioned in the list of loot from the temple, but it is almost certain that any records written upon plates of gold, or silver, or brass would certainly have been melted down after either the first siege, or certainly after the second siege and total destruction of Jerusalem. Certainly any papyrus or wooden records would have been destroyed in the fire that consumed the city. Had Lehi not taken the Brass Plates of Laban with him, they almost certainly would have been destroyed in the conflagration of 587.
It is not at all clear what records “the princes, and all the mighty men of valour” were able to take with them to Babylon, if anything. After all, the Babylonians were not interested in preserving Judean culture. What records the tribes of Israel, who were taken captive by the Assyrians in 722-721 BC, took with them is completely unknown. The derivative languages of the Lost Tribes are, well, lost – with very little archaeological data to go from.
According to Ethiopian Christian tradition, the Church of St. Mary of Zion in Axum, Ethiopia, holds the Ark of the Covenant. As per the tradition, Menelik I brought the Ark to Ethiopia after he visited his father King Solomon. Certainly the Ark would hold the tablets of the Ten Commandments, but the church may also house other ancient records – early copies of the Old Testament? Only one guardian monk, appointed for life by his predecessor before the predecessor dies, is allowed to see the Ark, and even perhaps other records. The guardian is confined to the chapel of the Ark of the Covenant for the rest of his life, praying before it and offering incense. Are there other sacred places where other records may be stored among the Lost Tribes – only to be returned when the Tribes are gathered?
In 2013, a Torah scroll from the University of Bologna, Italy was deemed to be the world’s oldest complete Torah. The scroll is about 800 years old, dating from between 1155 and 1225 AD. The oldest fragment of the Torah in existence is a silver amulet dating from the late seventh or early sixth century BC and containing perhaps a segment from an early version of the Book of Numbers.10
Finally, we read in Nehemiah 8:1-3 “And all the people gathered themselves together as one man into the street that was before the water gate; and they spake unto Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded to Israel. And Ezra the priest brought the law before the congregation both of men and women, and all that could hear with understanding, upon the first day of the seventh month. And he read therein before the street that was before the water gate from the morning until midday, before the men and the women, and those that could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the law.” This event would have occurred shortly after the Jerusalem temple was rebuilt in 515 BC. Where did Ezra get the book from which he read? It seems highly unlikely that the “book of the law” would have been compiled completely de novo from oral tradition while the Judean scholars were in Babylon. I believe that they had written records that they had taken with them to Babylon – perhaps even in secret. Those records were very likely in Canaanite and written on papyrus, wood, and metal. Those records became the foundation of the proto-Hebrew and then Hebrew scriptures that eventually became the Old Testament.
Trent Dee Stephens, PhD
1. Rattini, Kristin Baird, Who was Cyrus the Great? National Geographic, May 6, 2019, nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/cyrus-the-great
4. University of Oxford; ox.ac.uk/wiki/doku.php?id=cuneiform_writing_techniques
5. Simons, Frank, Proto-Sinaitic – Progenitor of the Alphabet, Rosetta, 9:16–40, 2011
6. Sanders, David, Writing Materials in Ancient Egypt, classroom.synonym.com; egypttoursportal.com/en-us/ancient-egyptian-hieroglyphs
8. Boddy, Jessica, Oldest papyrus ever discovered revealed at Egyptian Museum, 14 Jul 2016 science.org/content/article/oldest-papyrus-ever-discovered-revealed-egyptian-museum
10. 9 Oldest Copies of the Torah in the World; oldest.org/religion/torah