The first Dead Sea scrolls were discovered accidentally by a couple of Bedouin shepherds in a cave located in the northern Dead Sea area around late 1946/early 1947. Over the next several years more scrolls and thousands of scroll fragments were found in nearby caves. It turns out that these scrolls were between 1800 and 2300 years old and opened up ways of exploring numerous aspects of the late-Biblical world. There were some significant differences in these ancient scrolls that opened up all kinds of possibilities of textual development and criticism. Several so-called ‘sectarian’ texts were found that revealed steps in the formation of both rabbinic Judaism and Jewish Christianity. It was no longer the simple picture of the Bible and then the Mishna with a few Apocrypha texts thrown in the middle. There was a transitional period of over 500 years in which different groups vied for the right to inherit the Biblical tradition of the Israelites and more recent tradition of the Jews. The Pharisees and the Sadducees were the biggest protagonists, but both groups were challenged by the Essenes.
The Essenes were known before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Other writers from antiquity mention them, including Josephus who discusses them at length. From the outset, scholars assumed the authors of the scrolls were the Essenes, basing that assumption on the unusual content of sectarian scrolls and the ascetic description of the Essenes in the ancient sources. The word, Essene, however, is never found in any Dead Sea Scroll. In fact, nobody is positive what the word Essene even means. Although it is assumed that the scrolls were written at the nearby settlement of Qumran and also that Qumran was populated by Essene monks, there is no solid backing for either assumption.
The sectarian scrolls are probably the most revealing of the scrolls that were found. They tell us the way of life of the group that wrote them, their core beliefs, their political battles, and their messianic expectations. Six more or less complete sectarian scrolls have been found. They are: the Thanksgiving Hymns, the Community Rule or Manual of Discipline, the War Scroll or War of the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness, the Habakkuk Commentary, the Damascus Document, and the Temple Scroll.
The Community Rule scroll (there is no title on the scroll itself, it is simply the name given to it by scholars) describes the rules of a community of God seekers. These may very well have been the Essenes, and these rules could have been their basic guidelines. It lists the purpose of the group, the initiation rites, the moral code by which they lived and the consequences if they failed to live by them, and their goals as a spiritual community. Towards the beginning of the scroll (column 3 out of 11 total), there is a section dealing with how acceptance into the community is determined. Only those who are prepared to completely follow the moral and spiritual guidelines are allowed in.
Following this (columns 3 and 4), is an amazingly vivid explanation of the theological underpinnings of the role of man in the world. This appears to be an instruction manual for the teacher of the sect – what he was supposed to teach his disciples about man’s spiritual situation in life. The key component of this teaching is that God has laid out all the workings of the world in advance. They all follow God’s great plan and nothing can be changed. God created two spirits – one light (called truth) and one dark (called perversion) – which battle for the control of the soul of man, the single creation that is susceptible to a confrontation between the two spirits. The proportion of truth and perversion in each person determines his or her nature, either righteous or wicked. The spirit of perversion also inflicts all the righteous, and any evil they do has to be attributed to this spirit. God, through the spirit of truth, helps the children of light overcome the darkness. This situation lasts until the 'destined end':
‘Then the truth will be triumphant on the earth…and then God will purify with His truth all the deeds of man and cleanse for Himself all human beings and completely destroy from man’s flesh all the spirit of perversion, and purify with His holy spirit all man’s evil schemes…to give insight of higher knowledge to the upright, and to teach the wisdom of the children of heaven to those who have perfected their way. For God chose them for an everlasting covenant and all the glory of man shall be theirs…until now these spirits of truth and perversion have struggled within the hearts of men and they walk in both wisdom and foolishness, and according to his portion of truth he will be righteous and hate perversion, and according to his inheritance of perversion he will be evil and despise truth. For God made them in equal measures until the destined end when the renewal is made. And God knows the effects (results, causes, rewards – the translation of the word in the text is unclear) of their deeds for all the ends of [times] and He allotted them to man to know good [and evil so] that the destiny of all the living be according to the spirit within [him at the time of] the accounting.’
By anybody’s standards, there is quite a bit here. We have elements of predestination and a dualistic understanding of good and evil, combined with an apparently contradictory component of free will. We have people who are good, people who are evil, and people who are a mixture of good and evil, all of whom seem to be fated in their spiritual state by some mysterious pre-ordained arrangement. Then we have a time in which good triumphs over evil and everything becomes clear, and the ‘upright’ will be privy to this ‘higher knowledge’ that had been inaccessible to them due to the interference of the spirit of perversion. This group, if anything, seems to be the fortunate ones who will fulfill God’s original and ultimate plan. Somehow, each person’s destiny will be realized at this ‘time of accounting’.
The first question on all this concerns the contradiction between predestination and free will. Scholars generally assume that the Community Rule scroll is the clearest example of predestination in a Jewish work. They also assume that it represents a line of thought that goes against both the Bible and rabbinic Judaism. If everything is predestined, there is no room for free will. If there is free will, everything cannot be predestined. But belief in free will is also evident in the Community Rule text. Something has to go. Second is the idea of attributing all good and evil to these two spirits. Does that mean that we are not ultimately responsible for any evil we do or deserving of reward for any good we do? A good deal of the Bible hinges around the opposite belief. Even the Community Rule itself indicates otherwise. Free will suggests moral responsibility, but the two spirits idea denies it.
The third question concerns the time of accounting in the future – what is the point of it? Evil simply gets eliminated and the upright will see things as they really are instead of through the murky lens of the spirit of perversion. But why not just go straight to that stage and skip all the preliminaries? What is the purpose of this long phase of being pulled in two directions if in the end it will become clear that everything else was false? Without any alternative, we must enter the realm of speculation.
Perhaps the answer to all these questions lies in the mysterious nature of free will. Predestination was an obvious feature of a world that had too many inexplicable goings on. It had to be God making everything happen. If God controls everything then why shouldn’t God have control over our thoughts and actions? How does God manipulate our thoughts and decisions? This is where the two spirits enter the picture. But what about free will? Perhaps free will is limited to only allowing us the latitude to discover how much truth and how much perversion we were allotted. Our ‘decisions’ reveal the nature of the spirit that was doled out to us. If those ‘decisions’ reveal a righteous person, it means that he or she was dealt a larger portion of ‘truth’. If they reveal an evil person, it means the opposite. Free will, according to this scheme, is not an open-ended choice as much as an uncovering of what lay hidden.
Moral responsibility is not a direct consequence of our choices but a reflection of what we have inside. A righteous person gains the ‘reward’ of having their deck stacked in favor of truth. A wicked person suffers the ‘punishment’ of the reverse. This ‘reward’ and ‘punishment’ comes out at the ‘time of accounting’. Each person’s choices reveal what they are, and their ‘destiny’ will be correspondingly revealed at that future time. Those who were righteous will be those who can appreciate that future revelation of light and the knowledge and wisdom that it brings. Those who aren’t, will not appreciate that revelation and will suffer the fate of one who dwelt in darkness.
But there is still that final question: why don’t we just go straight into the time of revelation and only create those who can appreciate it? The ultimate answer is that such a system would be pointless. It would just be God playing a little game with some toy creations who do nothing on their own. The advantage to the system of the Community Rule is that those lucky few experience the evil side of life. They understand what it is like to live in the dark, so they appreciate living in light that much more.
But in the end, aren’t they ultimately just toys in God’s game? Perhaps we can answer this question by suggesting what limited free will does. It may not make choices for us in the manner that 21st century people believe it does, but it has the ability to experience the results of those spiritual battles, to live through them and to imbibe their effects. It may be that those experiences are the core of the soul. They are what we become in our lives and the reward we reap for ‘doing our time’ in this world. Maybe it is God who engineers our choices behind the scenes. But God cannot experience the effects. That is where we come in. We, possibly, are not ‘choosers’ as much as ‘experiencers’. To experience may very well be the ultimate role of man – a being who is caught in the midst of a spiritual battle beyond its control, but who nevertheless must bear the results of that battle throughout life.
The idea of ‘experience’ as the core spiritual activity of the soul is rarely seen in Judaism. It has a more eastern ring to it. Judaism is generally associated with ‘doing’ as opposed to ‘being’. There may have been a time when this was not the case. Perhaps this scroll is a reflection of such an outlook. Perhaps Judaism never entirely abandoned this outlook and it lingered on as a faded and distant memory within the religion. It may be there if one is willing to look for it and accept its implications. This, in a nutshell, is the way of being. The central idea is that life is not about doing. It is about being. It is simply to ‘be’ – to exist for that moment and to cherish it for all that it is. It is to be alone with the Source of existence, in the midst of creation, cognizant of being a creation amidst creation. It is such a powerful experience that one may lose track of time without feeling that one has missed anything. Time doesn’t matter when everything exists in the moment.
This is an unusual state for people who are used to being busy and relishing every minute of it. But a lot gets lost in the shuffle. A beautiful world lies just under the surface of all those thoughts and worries and plans. Perhaps we all need to take a step back every once in a while and just feel the spirit passing through the soul and sense the effects. Perhaps we occasionally could use a taste of ‘being’ without the clock ticking in the background. Perhaps we need the sound of a moment of silence, or the vision of emptiness, or the smell of unadulterated and unfettered wonder. This is the world of experience. When one enters it, one no longer wonders what the meaning of life is. The answer is obvious.
Food for Thought
Predestination is now a long-forgotten relic that most Jews are either unaware of or would like to forget. But is it possible that this passive and unassertive outlook actually has something meaningful to offer us in the modern world?
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