Who Are the Rechabites And Why Are They So Often Linked to Cohanim?
George Fischer writing in Brill:
The Rechabites (Heb. רֵכָבִים/rekābîm) are mentioned only in Jer 35. They traced their descent to Jehonadab, son of Rechab (2 Kgs 10:15, 23), who played a supporting role in Jehu’s revolt (9th cent. bce). The etymology of the name is unexplained.
The Rechabites’ lifestyle was unusual: they drank no wine and built no houses, living only in tents; they never sowed seeds or planted vineyards. They ascribed these restrictions to the command of Jehonadab ( Jer 35:6f.), which they followed faithfully. God contrasted them in their absolute obedience to the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem, who refused to listen to him and obey (vv. 13–17), and gave them a promise that they would stand before him for all time modeled on Jer 33:17f. The incident with Jeremiah, whom God had commanded to attempt to seduce them into drinking wine (for the motif of testing by God, Gen 22:1; Exod 15:25; etc.) is dated in the reign of Jehoiakim, around 600 bce (v. 11, based on 2 Kgs 24:1–2), but it could possibly reflect the formation of the book of Jeremiah in the 4th century; the existence of such a group in that period is attested by Jewish sources (W.L. Holladay, Jeremiah, II [Hermeneia, 1989, 246 with n. 5]).
Attempts to identify the Rechabites with other groups like the Nazirites are extremely precarious; G.L. Keown ( Jeremiah 26–52 [WBC 27, 1995, excursus 195f.]) rightly cautions against them and similar speculations. The significance of the Rechabites is that they modeled in their lives the obedient listening expected of the people of Israel.
There is a strange book in the Pseudepigrapha called The Story of Zosimus. Most scholars agree that it’s a hodgepodge; a composite work that combined several different works, composed at various different times by various different authors.
One of the works that were used is ‘A History of the Rechabites’ which Ronit Nikolsky believes to be a product of 5th c. Judean desert monasticism see here
Here is an excerpt from the article that caught my attention:
Hegesippus tells us that when James the brother of Jesus was being stoned to death, one of the Rechabites, who are identified as a priestly family to which Jeremiah testified, objected and told the attackers to stop (Eusebius, Hist. eccl . 2.23).
I have noticed this strange linkage too many times, in too many places, for it to be mere coincidence.
Here are several examples from Jewish sources:
The 11th c. Karaite sage Sahl b. Mazliah Hakohen is referred to as a ‘descendant of the rekhabites’ in Yisrael Eisenstein’s popular Ozar Yisrael see here
The Tanna, Rabi Yose B. Halafta (who was also a Kohen) is described as a descendant of Jonadab b Rekhab in The Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Taanit:
תלמוד ירושלמי מסכת תענית פרק ד דף סח טור א /ה”ב אמר רבי לוי מגילת יוחסין מצאו בירושלם וכתוב בה .. רבי יוסי בי רבי חלפתא מבני יונדב בן רכב
For the Karaite Sahl, perhaps he styled himself a ‘spiritual descendant’ of Yehonadab ben Rekhab, who, as we know according to the Biblical account, abstained from wine (and meat?). Sahl offered sharp rebuke to those who drink wine (and eat meat) while the Temple lies in ruins.
The early church fathers heaped praise upon the Rekhabites. They were held up as a perfect model of obedience and monasticism. Is it possible that some medieval Jews shared a similar view to the point where they made rekhabite a byword for righteous?
The early Christian writers had a positive view of the Rechabites and referred to them several more times… the Rechabites are held up as an example by John Chrysostom for not disobeying their father’s command (Hom. Acts 5:34) and as people approved by the prophets (Hom. Matt. 12:38-29 4); and Jerome extols the asceticism of the Rechabites in Jov. II.3.15) and calls them “holy men” in Epist. 52.3.
More notable excerpts from Davila’s article:
References in these chapters to the Rechabites being commanded to go naked (8:3-5; 9:9) are probably secondary insertions, since nudity was frowned upon in ancient Judaism, the nudity of the Blessed Ones is mentioned elsewhere in the work, and some passages in 8-10 which should mention the nudity do not (9:8; 10:2).
Perhaps the nudity is a reference to their pure innocent state a la Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
The Biblical Jonadab ben Rekhab does not seem to have been a Jew in the proper sense of the term.
From Chronicles, it seems that they were Kenites (and indeed in Aggadic sources they are referred to as descendants of Jethro):
וּמִשְׁפְּחוֹת סֹפְרִים ישבו (יֹשְׁבֵי) יַעְבֵּץ, תִּרְעָתִים שִׁמְעָתִים שׂוּכָתִים; הֵמָּה הַקִּינִים הַבָּאִים, מֵחַמַּת אֲבִי בֵית-רֵכָב
דברי הימים א ב כ”ב
According to the Sifri, the Children of Yitro (which may or may not include the Rechabites) settled in the fat portions of the city of Jericho. When Joshua b Nun apportioned the land, he granted it to the tribe of Binyamin.
Could the Cohanic connection be a result of a phonetic confusion between kenite and cohanite?
Or perhaps they married into the families of prominent cohanim and in so doing became intertwined with them?
The Mishna in Taanit 4, 5 lists the Sons of Rekhab as one of the prominent families who had a designated day to collect firewood:
ד,ה זמן עצי הכוהנים והעם, תשע: באחד בניסן, בני ארח בן יהודה; בעשרים בתמוז, בני דויד בן יהודה; בחמישה באב, בני פרעוש בן יהודה; בשבעה בו, בני יונדב בן רכב; בעשרה בו, בני סנאה בן בנימין; בחמישה עשר בו, בני זתואל בן יהודה–ועימהם הכוהנים והלויים, וכל מי שטעה שבטו, ובני גונבי עלי, ובני קוצעי קציעות; בעשרים בו, בני פחת מואב בן יהודה; בעשרים באלול, בני עדין בן יהודה; באחד בטבת, שבו בני פרעוש שנייה. באחד בטבת, לא היה בו מעמד, שהיה בו הלל, וקרבן מוסף וקרבן עצים.