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Jubilees and Second Temple Judaism(s) II

August 17, 2011

In the first post of this series we made three observations pertaining to the Judaism(s) of the Second Temple Period.*

  1. There were different religious Jewish groups, therefore, Judaism(s)
  2. These differing groups valued a variety of competing sacred texts; anachronistically speaking: different “canons”
  3. Many of the interpreters of these competing sacred texts shared some interpretive assumptions

What I would like to suggest in this post is that a text from antiquity which held a place of authority and normativity for some of these ancient Jewish groups was the book of Jubilees. In understanding why this book is supposedly important for grasping the polemic and worldviews of some Second Temple groups  we must first briefly discuss what the book of Jubilees presents itself to be.

In a nutshell Jubilees is a ‘retelling’ of the story found in Genesis and the first part of Exodus. The author “reproduces the text verbatim. Occasionally he deletes what he does not find useful. Most typically, however, he recasts the narrative or elaborates on it to fit his interests and purposes. Many of his alterations serve to smooth out perceived difficulties or problems in the biblical text” (Nickelsburg, Jewish Literature Between the Bible and the Mishnah, 69).For example, while the text in Genesis appears to have two Flood stories with some apparent difficulties as to how many animals enter the Ark and when, the author of Jubilees ‘fixes’ these apparent issues,

And he commanded Noah to make an ark for himself so that he might save himself from the water of the Flood. And Noah made an ark in all respects just as he commanded him in the twenty-second jubilee of years in the fifth week in the fifth year. And he entered it in the sixth year in the second month on the first of the second month until the sixteenth day. And he and everything which we brought to him entered into the ark. And the LORD shut it up from outside on the evening of the seventeenth.

Probably more importantly, as we shall see in the next post, often the author expands upon the biblical text to make a halakhic/legal/theological point. To understand the importance of the function (and as we go forward ‘function’ is an important word) of these expansions we must comprehend a couple of important elements pertaining to the self-presentation of Jubilees.

Unlike Genesis, Jubilees Has an Introduction: Featuring God!

Some people argue that Genesis 1:1 is actually an independent clause and functions as a title for the rest of the chapter (In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth). Whether this is true or not Genesis pretty much hits the ground running without much explanation (it would then properly begin: The earth was formless and void).

However, Jubilees offers much more background to the authority and setting of its authorship.

In the first year of the Exodus of the children of Israel from Egypt, in the third month on the sixteenth day of that month, the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Come up to me on the mountain, and I shall give you two stone tablets of the Law and the commandment, which I have written, so that you may teach them.” …

And the LORD revealed to him both what (was) in the beginning and what will occur (in the future), the account of the division of all of the days of the Law and the testimony. And he said, “Set your mind on every thing which I shall tell you on this mountain, and write it in a book so that their descendants might see that I have not abandoned them on account of all of the evil which they have done to instigate transgressions of the covenant which I am establishing between me and you today on Mount Sinai for their descendants.

So according to Jubilees, Moses is not only given the Law when he is called up to Mt. Sinai for forty days but he is also commissioned to write a book from the very words of God!–which is purportedly the book of Jubilees.

Moses Has an Angelic Scribe

Not only is God going to reveal to Moses what was in the beginning and what will occur in the future but he will also have an angel of the presence writing for him:

And he said to the angel of the presence, “Write for Moses from the first creation until my sanctuary is built in their midst forever and ever. And the LORD will appear in the sight of all. And everyone will know that I am the God of Israel and the father of all the children of Jacob and king upon Mount Zion forever and ever. And Zion and Jerusalem will be holy.”

And the angel of the presence, who went before the camp of Israel, took the tablets of the division of years from the time of the creation of the law and testimony according to their weeks (of years), according to the jubilees, year by year throughout the full number of jubilees, from the day of creation untill the day of the new creation when the heaven and earth and all of their creatures shall be renewed according to the powers of heaven and according to the whole nature of earth, until the sanctuary of the LORD is created in Jerusalem upon Mount Zion.

However, even in heaven and on Mt. Sinai the crap seems to roll down hill, because in the very next passage the angel who is supposed to be writing for Moses says–presumably once God went back to heaven or something:

And the angel of the presence spoke to Moses by the word of the LORD, saying, “Write the whole account of creation, that in six days the LORD God completed all his work and all that he created. And he observed a sabbath the seventh day, and he sanctified it for all ages. And he set it (as) a sign for all his works.”

So the angel of the presence is dictating to Moses what is written on tablets from heaven.

The Setting of the Book

Therefore, from this introduction the intended readers and hearers are to believe what follows this introduction–Jubilees 2-50, which is the recasting of Genesis and Exodus– is an angel dictating to Moses the words of God from the heavenly tablets while on Mt. Sinai. This is a pretty extraordinary claim!

But the setting is clear: God is the authority behind Jubilees, and an angel is dictating to Moses from the heavenly tablets which “contain all of the deeds of men, and all who will be born of flesh on the earth for the generations of eternity” (1 Enoch 81:2). “Jubilees thus presents itself in no uncertain terms as an absolute authoritative work whose divine message compels acceptance and obedience” (VanderKam, The Book of Jubilees, 12).

The setting, premise, and claims of Jubilees are not insignificant by any means. This is not just a religious text, but the very words of God written on the eternal heavenly tablets. If a group were to accept this at face value (which some apparently did) then the authority, normativity, and formative nature of this book would be immense. In other words: these are the words of God written on the heavenly tablets for all eternity: you might want to listen to what they say if you know what’s good for you! Or as Jubilees states it itself, “And in those days the children shall begin to study the laws, And to seek the commandments, And to return to the path of righteousness.”

But where are the explanations of those laws and commandments to be found? Of course, in Jubilees itself from the words of God written on the heavenly tablets.

In the next post we shall examine the function of the ‘heavenly tablets’ and their halakhic/legal/theological claims within the books self-presentation as the very words of God.


* The Second Temple period is not just the time of Jesus, but covers the ‘return to the land’ (Cyrus’ decree in 538 BCE) to the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE). There were a lot of political, social, and religious upheavals during these several hundred years, and many written documents which remain extant. With such a large time period the historical reality is much, much more complicated than I could represent in a blog post, but it is complicated and not simplistic.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Paul D. permalink
    August 17, 2011 11:27 pm

    Could Jubilees be where Paul gets the idea in Galatians 3:19 that the law was given to Moses via an angel?

  2. August 18, 2011 7:56 am

    Certainly the idea of an angel mediating the covenant is not in the OT so Jubilees does represent that idea. However, whether Paul got it directly from Jubilees or whether it was just one of those popular beliefs of wider Judaism we can’t say.

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