*It should be noted that there continues to be much debate about this group called the Essenes and what we truly know about them. Every time the scholastic community seems to make some headway in deciding who this group was and what they did, a whole different discussion arises that questions even the most basic assumptions that scholars have made.
One of the places that has been uncovered and has led us to learn so much about the Essenes is the work at Qumran and the famous Dead Sea Scrolls. Most are familiar with the fact that we found an unbelievable amount of biblical text in the Dead Sea Scrolls, but we also found much along the lines of extra-biblical text as well. One of the documents that was uncovered is called The Community Rule and explains much about the lifestyle and expectations for those living in the Essene community.
From what we can tell, the Essenes were made up of disillusioned priests who recognized the corruption of the Temple system and rejected the priesthood that had become so tattered. Some of them continued to perform their priestly duties twice a year, while others abandoned their posts altogether. While we used to think that only male priests were allowed into the group, we have recently found the bodies of several females in the cemetery at Qumran, causing many to suggest that the priests’ families were allowed to live there, or maybe that others were allowed into the sect, as well.
At any rate, we know this group of priests came out to the desert in order to preserve God’s way. They were determined to know the path and walk it well. They were stationed out in the desert in order to be the fulfillment of Isaiah 40:
Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the LORD’s hand
double for all her sins.
A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
the way for the LORD;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the LORD will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
They would be the voice crying out in the desert. They would be the group that would know the ancient paths when the words of Jeremiah would come to life:
This is what the Lord says:
“Stand at the crossroads and look;
ask for the ancient paths,
ask where the good way is, and walk in it,
and you will find rest for your souls.
When the people began coming back to God’s way, the Essenes would be ready. When people found themselves standing at a crossroads and asking for the ancient paths, the Essenes would know those paths. They were committed to knowing the path of God and walking in it.
To know the path. And to walk it.
These Essenes went to work, not only memorizing the Text, but preserving it. One of the main accomplishments of this sect is the unbelievably accurate transmission of the biblical text through copying the words and preserving the scrolls. Without the Essenes, there would be no Dead Sea Scrolls. Without the Essenes, we would still be wondering about the accuracy of our scriptures. To know the path.
But they were also committed to walking it. According to The Community Rule, in order to join this sect, you had to sell all of your worldly possessions and everything you had became common property in the community. They lived in strict, disciplined community with others, including a rigid commitment to ritual and obedience, meal times, and communal responsibility. The extent of their commitment to following God’s commands is astounding. To document the work of the Essenes adequately would be far beyond the scope of this blog post (even ignoring how much it is debated within scholarship). To walk the path.
When I travel to Israel with groups, one of the most significant stops we make is at Qumran, as we observe the dedication and passion with which these men (and apparently women) devoted themselves to learning, knowing, and walking the Text. I have stood on the mountain overlooking Qumran many times and shouted, “I want to be an Essene!”
To be the voice of one crying in the desert. To be the answer to the one standing at the crossroads and asking for the ancient paths and the good way. To know the path. To walk it.
I want to be an Essene.