The wilderness of Judea is an arid, desolate region bordering on the salt sea, which the Greeks call the Dead Sea. This sea is 1,286 feet below sea level, and has no outlet; it is the sump into which the Jordan river flows. Because of evaporation, it is too salty for any life, which is why it is called the Dead Sea. The western border consists of cliffs cut by valleys or "wadis", in which there can be found many natural caves. Some of these cliffs reach 900 feet above the water. It was in one of the caves that the famous "Dead Sea scrolls" were discovered in 1947 A.S.D.
It was in this wilderness that Yohanan appeared, wearing hair clothing, a leather girdle around his waist, living on locusts wild honey, and preaching to the people who came out to hear him. His father was said to have been a priest in Jerusalem named Zachariah, and his mother's name was said to be Elizabeth. Nothing is known of his childhood or his associations before he began his career of preaching; he might have been a member of the Essenes, or he might have been one of the Qumranians, who left us the Dead Sea scrolls. These were sects of Judaism who withdrew into the wilderness of Judea and practiced asceticism and strict ritual, and studied the Hebrew scriptures. The Essenes were known for their exemplary conduct and their lives of virtue and piety, as told by Flavius Josephus and Philo of Alexandria. The sect of the Qumranians is known only through the Dead Sea Scrolls, however. But Yohanan's connection with these groups cannot be proved; we don't know where he got his inspiration.
The prophets of ancient Israel and Judah were among the greatest of those who have proclaimed ethical values in human relationships and the rights of men. The word comes from the Greek pro-phetes, meaning "for-speaking" or "forthtelling". That is, a prophet meant one who "spoke for" Yahveh, one who "told forth" the will of God, rather than one who merely foretold events as is its modern usage.
Bands of prophets are first mentioned in the time of Samuel, about 1040 B.C.E. However, these early groups seem to have been musicians or dancers who worked themselves into an ecstatic frenzy during which they were assumed to be divinely inspired. No names of these early prophets have come down to us, nor have any of their messages.
Samuel himself was called a prophet, although he seems to have been more of a politician and a kingmaker than a speaker for Yahveh. He was judge over the northern tribes of Israel, primarily Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin, and finally had anointed a young man named Saul king in about 1020 B.C.E. Saul was victorious in battle against the Pilishtim, however, and did not submit himself to the will of Samuel, whereupon Samuel anointed David from Judah in his place.
The later prophets became famous for their demands for ethical behaviour, and for their standing outside of the regular priesthood. The first such prophet to be recorded by name was Nathan, who lived during the reign of David, the king who united Israel and Judah. David was a great military leader, but one of his acts was to send one of his generals out into battle with instructions that he was to be put in the forefront so that he would be killed, after which David added his wife Bathsheba to his harem. Nathan confronted David and condemned this act. He did not condemn it directly; he described it in an allegory to David, who was himself forced to admit that the man who committed such an act must be punished. The story concludes with the death of David's son as punishment, and David's penance. Nathan says that God forgives David because of David's acceptance of his guilt.
Elijah was the next of the great prophets to be mentioned by name, during the reign of Ahab in 875 B.C.E., the ninth king over Israel after Saul. Ahab had been persuaded to falsely accuse a man named Naboth whose vineyard he desired; after Naboth had been executed Elijah appeared to denounce the king for the wrongness of this act. Thus the prophetic tradition persisted in its consistent call for just and ethical dealings between people, even for kings towards commoners.
It continued to be necessary, unfortunately, and the next great prophet whose name is recorded as standing on the side of justice and the people was Amos, who lived about 750 B.C.E. He came from Tekoa, a town about ten miles south of Jerusalem, though his preaching was in the northern kingdom of Israel. Amos stands out in history for his sweeping denunciation of sacrificial worship as a way of obtaining God's favor and his demand for justice in all men's dealings with each other. "I hate your feast-days," Amos quotes God as saying; "I will not xreathe the air of your solemn gatherings, nor will I accept your burnt offerings." Amos thunders, "Let justice run down as waters, and righteousness as mighty stream!" He warned the northern tribes of Israel, "Woe unto you that desire the day of the Lord! the day of the Lord is darkness, and not light." He was, however, driven out of Israel and forced to return to Judah because of his criticisms of Jeroboam II, who was the king at that time over the northern tribes.
Hosea was a contemporary of Amos, who summarized God's opinion regarding the method of worship of the Israelites by saying, "I will have mercy, and not sacrifices." The word "mercy" is given in modern translations as "steadfast love" or "unconditional love." That is, God would rather have men show caring kindness towards each other than kill pigeons and lambs and offer them as sacrifices in the temple. Hosea reports that his wife had deserted him but he forgave her and took her back; if he can do this, he says, how much more can God forgive the Israelites if they return to his ways! Together Amos and Hosea may be called the fathers of ethical religion.
Isaiah I was another contemporary of Amos and Hosea in the eighth century B.C.E. He also spoke out forcefully against ritual and sacrificial worship and against the belief of the Jews that they were the chosen people of God. Micah came soon after, whose formulation that the only things which God wants of men are justice and mercy lives on as a one of the simplest formulations of ethical religion.
Jeremiah was a prophet who was imprisoned, reviled, and abused for his speaking against the power plays of the priesthood and the kings of Judah just before the Exile. Ezekiel lived in Babylon during the Exile, and was still another voice speaking for righteousness and caring instead of ritual practices.
Isaiah II was someone whose life we know nothing about, but whose writings were attached to the book of sayings by Isaiah I. He, too, must have written just before the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus the Persian; he foresaw a great day of peace for all peoples and in his writing (chapter 53) he especially venerates Jeremiah. Isaiah III is another great poet with a worldwide outlook whose writings make up chapters 56-66 of the book of Isaiah; he must have lived after the Jews had returned to Jerusalem and the temple had been rebuilt.
Sometime after the Jews had returned from the exile in Babylonia, the book of Jonah was written. We don't know the author, but it may be the most important political satire ever written. It tells how Jonah is sent to warn the Assyrians in Nineveh that God is going to destroy the city because of its wickedness, upon which announcement every last person in Nineveh repents in sackcloth and ashes, and when God sees this, he decides not to destroy the city after all. Jonah is angry with God for not destroying the city, and God chides Jonah for not pitying all the residents who have repented, nor the tens of thousands of children who are not yet old enough to know the difference between right and wrong. Thus the author declares that God is the God of all people, and that the chosen people theory favored by the Jews was false.
Yohanan follows in the tradition of these ancient and outspoken personages. He denounces his listeners for their complacence and their reliance upon being the chosen people; he asserts that God can raise up children to himself from the very stones upon the ground. Yohanan says to them, Even now the axe is laid unto the root of the trees, and they will be cut down and burned, unless they bring forth fruits worthy of repentance. He tells them that those who do not practice ethical behavior will be burned like the chaff during harvest in the coming reign of God.
Yohanan is very concrete and specific in his demands to his listeners. Thus, when he is asked by the multitudes, "What must we do, to bring forth such fruit?" he replies, "If you have two coats, you give to the person that has none; if you have food, you share it with the person who is hungry." When the tax-gatherers also ask, "What must we do?" he tells them, pointing his finger straight at their unethical practices, "Do not take from anyone more than they owe." And finally, when the soldiers ask him the same question, he gives the world's first prescription for nonviolence: "Do violence to no one; and do not arrest or treat anyone wrongfully; and be content with your wages."
Besides demanding ethical behavior from his hearers, he made them undergo a ritual cleansing, called baptism. The word comes from the Greek word baptos, meaning 'immersion', and was used to signify the washing away of one's past actions and making oneself clean for new behaviour. This practice is one of the reasons for connecting him with the Essenes, since they also practiced ritual bathing; but they do not appear to have used it as an initiatory rite, as Yohanan did, but as part of their daily ritual. It was also used by Yohanan as a substitute for circumcision, which was the ancient Jewish rite for acceptance into their religion.
Yohanan had such an effect on his hearers that they all began to wonder if he was in fact the long-awaited messiah who would reestablish the kingdom of the Jews. No doubt his preaching the coming kingdom of God led them to make this assumption. Yohanan emphatically denied this, however, saying, "There is one coming after me whose shoelace I am not even worthy to bend down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but the one to come will baptize you with fire; like an harvestman, he will thresh the wheat from the chaff, and burn the chaff; but he will gather the wheat into his granary."
He denounced Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, in particular, for his act of divorcing his own wife and then marrying Herodias, his brother's wife. This reminds us of David's act in getting rid of Uriah the Hittite and marrying his wife Bathsheba; and Yohanan's reproof is reminiscent of Nathan's scolding of the king. Herod was not repentant, however, as David was, and he arrested Yohanan and imprisoned him in his fortress of Machaerus on the eastern shore of the Dead Sea, which had been built by Alexander Yannai, the grandson of Simon Maccabee, during his long and tyrannical rule. This wasn't enough for Herodias, however; because of Yohanan's condemnation of her, she wanted him killed, and she finally put enough pressure on Herod to induce him to execute Yohanan. It may have also been simply that Herod was afraid that Yohanan would raise a rebellion and that was why he killed him.
But before this happened, Yohanan had baptized hundreds of those who came out to hear him. One day, Yeshua ben Yosef came from his home in Galilee, to be baptized by Yohanan in the Jordan, indicating his acceptance of Yohanan's message. It was to be the moment of Yeshua's personal transformation.