Early Biblical Judaism

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Biblical period spans a period of 4000 years. It begins with the earliest roots of the patriotic family of Israel and its intimate initial relationship with God. The Bible records the stages leading to the emergence of Israelites as a nation, their liberation from bondage and their acceptance of a body of teaching. That is what the word Torah means, “teaching”. A body of teaching revealed to them through Moses. And finally, the Bible ends with the establishment of a kingdom in that land promised to the patriots.

The Father Abraham

Israelite history and its religion both begin with the patriot Abraham. The national epic begins with Abraham being told by God to leave his home in Ur and proceed to a land that he will show him. In this journey begins a series of intermittent migrations. Ultimately the family settles in the land that will become the emergent nation’s homeland.

Abraham is not only the progenitor of the Israelite people, he is the father of their faith as well. He is described in the Bible as having faith in God. He will later be perceived as the first man to not only recognize God’s existence, but to remove himself from the pervasive idolatrous culture of his day.

His faith is rewarded by a series of covenants with God, one of which was symbolized through his willingness to circumcise himself and his offspring. Hence the Hebrew word for covenant now designates the circumcision ceremony in Judaism.

Abraham’s faith is tested by God. God commands and Abraham is willing to sacrifice his son Isaac on an altar. This story became a defining moment for Jews throughout history. Their willingness to accept all sorts of pain and adversity would constantly be compared to that of their patriot Abraham.

Even today, a convert is given the Hebrew name “son of Abraham our father”. Female converts are also designated “daughter of Sarah our mother”.

The events surrounding the patriots represent the earliest sprangs of a collective memory that binds Judaism together. Our interest is not in historicity. Even the Bible never attempts to contextualize those stories into a broader historical framework. We should know, however, that scholars have placed the migratory processes that are alluded in the stories of the patriots somewhere between the 20th and 16th centuries B.C.E. There is absolutely no way that we can verify any of this stories.

Bondage in Egypt and the Liberation

The second historical stage in the biblical account of Israel’s emergence as a nation and as a religion is the bondage of Abraham’s descendants in Egypt. That culminated with their exodus from that land under the leadership of Moses. The biblical book of genesis has already gotten informing Abraham that his descendants would be slaves in the land of Egypt. This is very important, because it meant a sense of providential involvement in all the subsequent history of Israel. This expresses that nothing in the nation’s history occurs by chance.

The centuries of bondage in Egypt coincided with Israel’s transformation from an extended family of 70 people to a nation of hundreds of thousands. Through divine intervention and punishment of the Egyptians, the Israelites are ultimately led out of Egypt by Moses, the most important figure in the emergence of Judaism. The miraculous redemption was destined to become one of the great defining moments in the collective memory of Judaism. It would even be enhanced by the opening statement of the Ten Commandments, where God proclaims “I am the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, you should not have another god but me.”

The liberation from Egypt often serves as a prototype for hopes of a future redemption in Jewish history. It is constantly alluded to in Jewish prayer.

Wandering in the desert after leaving Egypt, they arrived at Mount Sinai, where the ultimate revelation takes place. The people of Israel receive the Ten Commandments, also manifest signs of God’s presence in the mountain. God called Moses up to the top of the mountain for forty days and forty nights. There, Moses receives from God the complete system of laws which would ultimately be transmitted to the people of Israel.

This teaching is known as the Torah, and it would serve as the divine basis for all subsequent aspects of Jewish law and behavior. Everything in the end would come back to the Torah and to this divine revelation.

Traditional Judaism accepts that the five books of Moses, the Pentateuch, the first portion of the Jewish Bible, was dictated by God to Moses at Sinai. The more liberal denominations of contemporary Judaism, following modern scholarship, had modified this article of faith, by assigning a greater role for human authorship of the Torah. That, again, does not change this collective memory and the centrality of the Torah in subsequent Judaism.

Establishment of a Nation

They received their physical freedom from Egypt. They received their spiritual substructure at Sinai. The people of Israel now are prepared for the final stage of the primal ethnographic saga. After forty years in the desert, under the leadership of Moses’ successor, Joshua, the land of Canaan is captured. The land that was promised to the patriots.

The subsequent portions of the Hebrew Bible now describe the stages in the establishment of Israel as a nation in the land. Following conquest and political consolidation, a monarchy finally emerges. David, the second king of Israel, whose reign is commonly dated to somewhere in the first half of the 10th century B.C.E., was the founder of a monarchical dynasty that will rule Israel for four centuries, until the fall of the kingdom to the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E.

Just as Moses came to represent the ultimate prophet in Judaism, David emerged not only as a symbol of political unity, but as the dynastic forerunner of a future restorative process. A process that would culminate by the appearance of one of his descendants as the Messiah.

The period of the monarchy would coincide with two major phenomena. Both would have a lasting effect on Judaism as a religion. David moved his capital to Jerusalem. Under his son Solomon, a temple would be established as the focal point of Jewish worship. This is important because Jerusalem would have a dual role to play in the Judaic psyche. It became the political capital of Judaism, but at the same time it was its legitimate religious center. You can worship only in Jerusalem, at the temple.

The period of the monarchy coincides with the appearance of the great prophets of Israel. Their teachings stressing the moral imperatives of the nation would serve as the cornerstones for Judaism as well for Christianity. The Jewish reform movement of the 19th century would actually attribute a heightened significance to the words of the prophets.

The fall of the kingdom in 586, coupled with the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem, marks the end of the first formative stage of Jewish history. The Jewish Bible does not end, however, with the destruction. It goes a bit further, to the beginnings of the restoration, with the declaration of king Cyrus of Persia allowing captives that have been taken to Babylonia some decades earlier to return to rebuild the temple. That’s basically where the Hebrew Bible ends its story.

A second temple would be build in Jerusalem that was completed in 516 B.C.E. It would stand until the first century of the common era, when it was destroyed by the Romans. The events that took place during this stage of Judaism’s development were pretty significant.

Jews were ruled by a succession of conquering empires: Persian, Hellenistic, Roman. For most of this period, there is no prophecy anymore. As a result, for most of the period there is no Jewish monarchy and no new forms of leadership. A spiritual leadership begins to emerge. A sage who knows the Bible and can teach, Esdras.

A second major development in understanding where Judaism was headed is the appearance of a Jewish diaspora, a dispersion. In the Hebrew Bible, dispersion of the Israelites is considered a threat. If you misbehave, you will be dispersed around the world. What was a threat in the Bible, by the post-biblical period had become reality. We would now encounter Jews throughout the Greco-Roman world and East of the Greco-Roman world, in the lands beyond the Euphrates River. This diaspora would play a very important role in early Christianity, as well as in the formation of what is known as Rabbinic Judaism.