The Nature of God, In Search of God, Lawrence H. Schiffman, Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia 1994.



In their external appearance, the sectarian manuscripts themselves already testify to a tremendous respect for God. The sectarians generally avoided use of the tetragrammaton—the four-letter divine name YHVH—traditionally pronoun “Adonai” by Jews and translated “Lord” in most Bible translations. They often substituted other divine names for YHVH in nonbiblical manuscripts, mainly, “El,” translated as “God.” Some scrolls write the divine names in paleo-Hebrew script, the ancient script of the First Temple period, in order to give them greater emphasis and, perhaps, sanctity. Underlying these scribal and literary conventions is the desire to recognize the unique sanctity of God and God’s name, which symbolized the essence of God in ancient Hebrew thought.

The sectarians’ sense of reverence for the divine name goes hand in hand with their textual emphasis on God’s majesty and glory. This point is most prominent in Thanksgiving Hymns. In the following excerpt (10-8–11) God is seen as all-powerful-

Behold, You are the prince of the angels and king of the honored ones,

Lord of every spirit and ruler over every creature.

Without You nothing is done, and nothing can be known without Your will.

There is none beside You, and no one shares power with You.

Nothing compares to Your glory, and Your strength is beyond comparison.

In this poem, the author declares that none can compare to God and nothing can be known without God’s will. This nexus of the will, the knowledge, and the power of God is repeated over and over in the Qumran sectarian corpus. Human beings are left virtually powerless in this system; they can do nothing except with God’s knowledge and approval.

God’s majesty brings with it the notion of a divine retinue—the angels. Angels appear in various forms—as rulers over the hosts of heaven and as living among the Qumran sectarians in their messianic community. The prevalence of angels is characteristic of many Second Temple period texts; the sectarians were not unique in that regard.

The Qumran group also believed that God created the world for God’s own glory. The division of the human race into the righteous and the wicked—the basic dualistic principle of Qumran sectarian thought—was made for the same reason-

. . . so that You may be glorified through judgment of the wicked, and show Yourself mighty on my behalf before the children of mankind. (THANKSGIVING HYMNS 2-24)

God’s glory is demonstrated to humankind through God’s punishment of the evildoers and reward of the righteous.

God is of course the unquestioned creator of all-

Praised are You O Lord . . . all things are Your work. (THANKSGIVING HYMNS 16-8)

Indeed, as creator, God predestined the future of all God’s creations-

And before they were established He knew their deeds . . . and He knew the years of their existence and the set times and exact epochs of all that have come into being and those which will come into being forever—what will happen in their periods—for all the years of eternity.

Everything is foreknown by God, a doctrine that is, in fact, typical of ancient Jewish theology and found in the Bible and in later rabbinic literature. What is new at Qumran is the notion that everything has been predestined and that human beings really have no choice over the way their affairs will play out, either in individual terms or in the national and cosmic senses-

From the God of knowledge comes all that is and will be, and before they came into being He predestined all their thoughts. And when their appointed times come according to His glorious plan, they will fulfill their function with no change. (RULE OF THE COMMUNITY 3-15–16)

All has been set forth by the divine plan; predestination is absolute. Again, this sectarian formulation goes way beyond the notion of a divine plan as articulated in other Second Temple literature.
God has also imposed order on the universe and on nature. The divine role is set forth in a beautiful poem in the Thanksgiving Hymns praising God as the creator-

And You stretched forth the heavens for Your glory,

[and] all [which is in them You pre]destined according to Your will . . . ,

The luminaries according to their mysteries,

the stars in [their] orbits,

[And all the storm winds] for their task,

meteors and lightning for their service (1-9–12).

God’s orderly placement of the astral bodies and their orbits was extremely important to the sectarians, for these were the basis of their distinct, sectarian calendar. The calendar is seen as just another in a series of proofs that all has been set forth by God and predestined. The divine plan set forth for the universe is known only to God, not to humankind. It is therefore often called a mystery. The orbits of the heavenly bodies are often referred to as secrets, as are the processes of history.

God is the God of history, as made clear already in the Hebrew Bible. This concept finds many expressions in the scrolls. For example, God controls the national fate of Israel and precipitated the destruction of the First Temple-

For because of their transgression, in that they abandoned Him, He hid His face from Israel and from His Temple, and handed them over to the sword. (ZADOKITE FRAGMENTS 1-3–4)

He is also responsible for Israelite military successes and will give the sectarians victory in the great eschatological battle, a notion mentioned repeatedly in the War Scroll (11-1–3, 9–10).
God is the embodiment of righteousness and will judge and punish the wicked-

For You are righteous and all Your chosen ones are truth, and all iniquity [and e]vil You will destroy forever. (THANKSGIVING HYMNS 14-15–16)

But if one repents, God receives that repentance and spares the individual from punishment-

[I have] leaned upon Your kindnesses and Your abundant mercies, for You will grant atonement for transgression, and to pur[ify man]kind from guilt in Your righteousness.

The problem of how to square this notion of repentance with the concept of complete predestination is one to which we will return later.

God’s abiding righteousness guarantees that sectarians will be treated with mercy. This notion is stressed in the Rule of the Community in a poem (11-13–15) that brings that document to a close, a composition with many parallels to Thanksgiving Hymns-

In His mercies He brought me near,

and in His kindness He will bring about my vindication.

In His truthful righteousness He has judged me,

and in His great goodness He will grant atonement for all my transgressions.

And in His righteousness He will purify me from all human impurity,

and (from) the sin of mankind.

So that I will give thanks to God for His righteousness,

and to the exalted One (for) His glory.

God’s goodness, righteousness, and forgiveness are here all associated with one another. These attributes will become manifest in the End of Days when the sectarians as individuals and as a group will be victorious with God’s help. Then God’s justice will be manifest to all humanity.
One of the basic difficulties with any system that posits God as absolute and good is that it must explain the existence of evil. Sectarians dealt with that problem by accepting a kind of extreme ethical dualism. Picking up on the prophet Isaiah’s description of God as the one “who forms light and creates darkness, makes weal and creates woe” (Isaiah 45-7), the sect believed that God was indeed the author of both good and evil. But neither the good nor the evil attributes could derive from God directly. So the sectarians, or those from whom they drew, developed the idea of two spirits, the good and the bad, who acted as God’s agents in the management of the world.
In Rule of the Community, a very detailed section explains that dualistic approach, outlined as follows-

And He created mankind for dominion over the earth, and He set over him two spirits, so that he (man) could follow them until the time of His visitation. These are the spirits of truth and iniquity. From the dwelling place of light are the origins of truth, and from the source of darkness are the origins of iniquity. In the hand of the Prince of Light is the dominion of all the sons of righteousness; they walk in the ways of light. But in the hand of the Angel of Darkness is the entire dominion over the sons of iniquity; and they walk in the ways of darkness. (RULE OF THE COMMUNITY 3-17–21)

The passage goes on to explain the basic doctrines of this remarkably elaborated system- God created the two spirits at the time of creation, and the affairs of the world are dependent on them. The good spirit, loved by God, is connected with light, truth, and righteousness. The evil spirit, often known as Belial (literally, “of no worth”), is connected with darkness, sin, and evil. Belial appears as a prince of evil spirits in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, occasionally in later Jewish mystical literature, and in the New Testament (II Corinthians 6-15). He is hated by God, Who is nonetheless his creator.

Each of these spirits has a group of human and angelic followers, called the “lot.” And one’s entire pattern of behavior is determined by one’s belonging to one of those two groups. The evil spirit, assisted by demonic angels, causes all transgressions. These spirits are predestined to have dominion at different times, so that the ultimate triumph of the spirit of good can be anticipated. Since God is the creator of both powers, the dualism described here is not absolute as in some Eastern religions or in Zoroastrianism. Rather, it is tempered by the power of God as the ultimate and only creator.

The ethical and religious dualism proposed in this text is very similar to the rabbinic idea of the good and evil inclinations. The primary difference is that in the rabbinic system, these inclinations are internal psychological urges that compete within one human personality. In sectarian doctrine, in contrast, they are external powers that compete for dominion over the entire cosmos. Other texts of the Dead Sea sect, however, may indicate that the concept is indeed one representing an internal, personal struggle.

The messianic war will eventually result in victory by the spirit of good. But until then, the struggle will go on uninterrupted-

For God has placed them side by side until the final age, and He has set eternal enmity between their divisions. (RULE OF THE COMMUNITY 4-16–17)

The war that will finally resolve this struggle is described in the War Scroll. In those final battles, human and angelic armies of the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness will engage in a war of some forty years, from which the sect—the Sons of Light—will emerge victorious.
Part of the plan of predestination is that God determines to which group a person belongs. Speaking of the two spirits, Rule of the Community says-

And He knew the performance of their deeds for all the periods of [their performance], and He has caused them to be inherited by mankind so that they would know good [from evil and] to assign lots for every living thing according to His spirit in [His division until the time of the] visitation.

God, then, has decided, indeed predestined, the assignment of humankind into lots.
A number of scholars have suggested Zoroastrian or other Iranian influence on the dualistic doctrine of the Qumran sectarians. However, no such influence has actually been proven, especially since sources for the religions in question occur actually much later than the Qumran texts. On the other hand, there can be no question that these religious traditions grew from a common soil that might have contributed to the development of Qumran sectarian views.


One of the themes most emphasized in the sectarian scrolls concerns humanity’s lowliness and depravity. Though it is true that such a characterization of the human race is found later, in the Musar (“ethics”) literature of East European Jewry, this image of human beings is otherwise exceptional in Jewish teachings, and probably exerted its influence more fertilely on early Christianity.
According to the sectarian view, the human being is a lowly creature made of clay (or dust) and molded with water. This idea is especially emphasized in Thanksgiving Hymns and may reflect to a great extent the personal experience of the author, who many scholars have surmised was the Teacher of Righteousness.

Just one sample from the text (Thanksgiving Hymns 12-24–26) will bring together those dominant motifs-

But I have been ta[ken] from dust [and] form[ed from clay],

into a fount of impurity and the nakedness of shame,

a source of dust and knea[ded with water,

a place of gui]lt and a dwelling of darkness.

And a return to dust is (the destiny) of a creature of clay,

at the time which is [appointed for it,

and] its [end] is in the dust,

to the place from which it was taken.

Over and over the author stresses his own feelings of inadequacy when standing before God. But the author goes even further- the terms translated “fount” and “nakedness” refer to female reproductive organs. The language of this and many other passages makes clear that the author of Thanksgiving Hymns regarded those organs as always impure, even during birth. This approach points away from the traditional Jewish view that sexuality is positive, and it instead upholds the idea, later taken up by early Christianity, that sexuality is basically an impure and undesirable feature of human existence. Such a notion can be contrasted with the generally positive view of women that we saw previously.

In a number of passages, “flesh” is associated with the humbleness of human beings, for example-

What is flesh that it should understand [Your mysteries, and a creature] of dust that it should be able to guide its steps? (THANKSGIVING HYMNS 15-21)

This notion of the lowly nature of flesh, although not emphasized in premedieval Jewish literature, was certainly present in early Jewish thought. It exerted a major influence on some early Christian views of sexuality and of the physical dimension of the human being. What we need to emphasize here is that these Qumran texts do not reflect a dualistic notion pitting flesh against soul but rather condemn flesh when it is not endowed with the divine spirit that elevates it to holiness.
In the view of the author of the Thanksgiving Hymns (4-29–30), human beings are essentially sinful-

And he (man) is in sin from the womb,

and until old age he is in the guilt of faithlessness.

And I know that man cannot attain righteousness,

nor can a person (achieve) perfection of the way.

According to this text, human beings are endowed with an innate proclivity to and are unable to free themselves of transgression. But such proclivity is never blamed on original sin (Adam’s and Eve’s transgression in eating of the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden). Rather, human sinfulness derives from the influence of the two spirits, as explained previously. Only God can be wholly righteous.

Yet the situation is not hopeless, because forgiveness is available (Rule of the Community 3-6–9)-

For through the spirit of the counsel of the truth of God are the ways of man atoned. . . .

And through the spirit of holiness of his community of truth he will be purified of all his sins.

And through a spirit of uprightness and humility will his sin be cleansed,

and through subordinating himself to all the laws of God will his flesh be purified.

Nonetheless, all atonement is subject to the predestinarian doctrine of the sect. It is only possible for one to repent if one is predestined to be among those who turn away from iniquity and join the community. On the other hand, if it has been predetermined that a person belongs to the lot of Belial, then one will not repent of one’s transgressions. Indeed, everyone’s final fate has already been predetermined-

You alone have [cre]ated the righteous and from the womb You have predestined him for the appointed time of Your choice. . . . And You created the evildoers for [the periods of] Your [wr]ath, and from the womb You have set them aside for the day of slaughter, for they have walked in a path which is not good, and they have despised Yo[ur] covenant. (THANKSGIVING HYMNS 15-14–18)

The elect, those predestined to be part of the good lot, have been blessed with knowledge by God-

And I, through my understanding, have come to know You, my God, through the spirit which
You placed within me. . . . In Your holy spirit You have [o]pened to me knowledge of the mystery of Your understanding. (THANKSGIVING HYMNS 12-11–13)

God has vouchsafed knowledge of the divine mysteries to the elect. Through this knowledge, the members of the community—the elect or “chosen ones” of God—can discern the correct path and follow the divine will. (Some have sought to see in this emphasis on knowledge the influence of Gnosticism, the diverse religious movement that challenged orthodox Christianity in the early centuries of the common era. However, if there was any mutual influence, it was the Dead Sea sectarians or groups like them that influenced the Gnostics, because Gnosticism apparently postdates Qumran ideology.)

Once a person has been selected for the lot of the Sons of Light and has assumed the obligations of membership in the sect, then that person must meet numerous behavioral requirements, encompassing both ritual and ethical Jewish norms consonant with the teachings of the sect. The purposes of the Sons of Light are-

To illumine the heart of mankind, and to straighten before him(self) all the ways of true righteousness, and to cause his heart to fear the regulations of the Lord, and a humble spirit and patience, and great love and eternal good, and understanding and discernment, and mighty wisdom, sustained by all the deeds of God and dependent on His great kindness and a spirit of knowledge of the plan of every creature, and zealousness for just judgments, and a thought of holiness with a stable personality, and great love of all the people of truth, and glorious purity, despising all the disgusting impurities, and walking humbly with knowledge of all, and concealing the truth of the mysteries of knowledge.

The text then immediately attributes to the Sons of Darkness the opposite character traits and actions.

The sectarian ideal calls for development of the entire personality as well as observance of the ethical and religious requirements of the Torah. Such a personality exemplifies equanimity and stability, which the passage bespeaks. We also learn here that sectarians are required to keep the group’s teachings secret from outsiders. This requirement apparently applied both to theology and to matters of Jewish law.

Whereas the sect expected to be rewarded for its piety in the End of Days, it also expected a reward in the present age for such piety and for following the way of the Sons of Light-

And the visitation of all those who walk in it will be for health and great well-being with long life, and fertility, with all the eternal blessings, and eternal joy in eternal life, and a crown of glory with splendid raiment in eternal light. (RULE OF THE COMMUNITY 4-6–8)

This reward seems to include eternal life. Some have suggested that since the sectarians expected to see the coming of the End of Days in their lifetime, their theology lacks belief in resurrection of the dead. On the other hand, a few texts, most probably not written by the sectarians themselves but included in their library, do speak of resurrection, a notion found in the biblical Book of Daniel as well as in a variety of Second Temple period texts.

Pages 145-153

What do you want to know?

Ask our AI widget and get answers from this website