Jewish Origins Without Revelation (Part 2)

I will begin this essay by dealing in abbreviated form with Jewish origins. To ask about origins is to ask the question: where do we Jews come from? Where are our historical roots? What is the first documentary evidence about Israelite existence? Since the heart of Judaism’s existence is Torah and Torah is our source for the existence of God and his alleged special relationship with the Jewish people, we need to inquire about the Torah’s origins.

I will try to respond to the above questions drawing on both Jewish and non-Jewish scholarship.

It should be clear that in my effort at a non-supernatural reconstruction of Jewish history I will not deal with phenomena such as divine revelation or divine interventions in human affairs because, these belong into the realm of faith and not documentable historical events.

But even documentable historical facts call for interpretation and interpretation is not mathematics! It is always, at least to some extent, subjective because, like everything else in life, it is human and thus suffers from human existential limitation.

Let’s scroll back to the Near-East in pre-biblical times. In an extant letter within a correspondence between the ruler of a Canaanite city-state and his powerful overlord, a pharaoh in Tel el-Amarna, probably pharaoh Akhenaten (d. 1336 BCE), in Upper Egypt, we read, “There are marauding habiru tribes here who cause damage to our land and its farmers.”

While we do not have a response from this unnamed pharaoh, this sentence introduces us to the term HABIRU which, even without sophisticated knowledge of linguistics, corresponds by and large to our term HEBREW. The Canaanite letters forming the term Habiru are related to the Hebrew term ‘ivriy from which our word “Hebrew” is derived. Interestingly, the Hebrew ‘ivriy, in turn, derives from the Hebrew verb ‘avar which means “to move, crossover, pass over.” What do semi-nomadic tribes do? They move, they cross over, they pass over land.

The Habirus were semi-nomads. With their cattle they crisscrossed the land looking for fertile areas, settled here and there, let their cattle graze, and when nothing was left for the cattle to eat, moved on to the next fertile spot. No wonder that the local Canaanite farmers considered them intruders and asked pharaoh for help to keep the Habirus and their herds away.

It is likely that the earliest historical ancestors of the Hebrews were these Near Eastern semi-nomadic Habiru tribes. Avram, later to become Abraham, (approx. date between 2,000 and 1,700 BCE), who with his family and tribe had moved from Ur of the Chaldeans to Haran in Syria and settled there was subsequently told by the LORD to move on.

Genesis 12:1-3 is a seminal chapter for my thesis. It is here that the LORD (i.e., YHWH, name of God allegedly revealed to Moses at the Burning Bush in the Sinai peninsula) ordered Abraham to

“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation and I will bless you…”

And so, according to Gen 12:4, “Abraham went, as the LORD had told him.” Thus, from Haran in Syria, Abraham’s family/tribe traveled south, to the Land of Canaan, allegedly guided by the LORD.

Some scholars suggest that the person of Abraham is a personification of a migratory movement. Semi-nomads migrate, remember! It is a well established fact that different Near Eastern tribes worshiped and followed their particular God. The time frame we are considering here is one in which polytheism was the generally practised form of religion in the Near East.

In the Bible, the stories about Abraham are followed by the tribal stories of Abraham’s son Isaac and his wife Rebecca. These, in turn, are followed by the stories covering the exploits of their son Jacob and his wives Leah and Rachel whose twelve sons become the eponymous ancestors of the so-called Twelve Tribes of Israel. Their daughter Dinah did not become ancestress of a tribe.

Now to a quick forward in biblical history. The book of Genesis reports that the Twelve Tribes, during a devastating famine in Canaan where they had settled, migrated south to Egypt where there was food available and where they established themselves under favorable circumstances. Without going here into the details of many associated stories like, for instance, the Joseph narratives, we are told that eventually they became enslaved in Egypt. How so?

Upon arrival of the Hebrews in Egypt, an unnamed Hyksos-related pharaoh ruled over Egypt (the Hyksos invaders’ reign in Egypt: 1730-1570 BCE). The Hyksos people were of Semitic ethnic background, (like the Habirus/Hebrews), which explains the favorable welcome they extended to the Twelve Tribes, by now known as Israel. When the Hyksos’ relatively brief dynasty was terminated by one Ahmose who expulsed them and re-established the pre-Hyksos native Egyptian royal dynasty, the Israelites fell into disfavor. The biblical narrative conveys this development rather laconically: “Now a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph” (Exod. 1:8f.) This unnamed new Pharaoh was in all probability Ramses II, a ruler generally considered to have been a megalomaniac, suggestion based on the ubiquitous statuary of his person found all over Egypt.

This is not the proper place for a detailed account of Israel’s slavery in Egypt. Based on biblical chronologies which do not agree with each other, approximately 400 years.

As a result of the alleged Ten Plagues which God brought down on Egypt, the last of which was the death of the Egyptian firstborns which included Pharaoh’s son, the slaves were released and traveled toward the land of Canaan, located north of the Nile Delta. Still scrolling forward, the liberated slaves stopped over at the Sinai desert where, on Mount Sinai, (exact location to this day not identified), according to the tradition, Moses received both the Written and the Oral Torah, containing among other laws, the famous Ten Commandments.

After Moses’ death, the liberated slaves under the leadership of Joshua, followed by the so-called Judges (military leaders), engaged in the conquest of the land of Canaan whose possession had been promised to Abraham and his posterity. According to Deut. 7:1-5, God’s promise of giving to the Israelites the land of Canaan took place as prophesied. It was fulfilled by means of what in our time would be called “ethnic cleansing” or the destruction of the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites. It would seem that despite temporary setbacks here and there, in the end everything went as planned and the liberated Hebrew tribes, by slaughtering the natives in their land with God’s help, achieved God’s plan of coming into possession of the land of Canaan. It should be noted that apart from the biblical witness to these events, none is preserved in extra biblical documentation.

The two biblical books of Samuel tell us about the transition of the liberated tribes from functioning as a loose confederation to a monarchy, first under king Saul and subsequently under king David who became the intermediary between God Yahweh and the people Israel. The previous direct theocratic rule of Israel was now modified.

David was a very astute politician. Having conquered the city of Jebus, capital of the Jebusites, he established it as the political capital of the newly conquered country, as well as its religious center. This was accomplished by bringing the Ark of the Covenant containing the Ten Commandments from Sinai, previously held by the various tribes in rotation, to this city and renaming it Yerushalayim, “Inheritance of Peace.” It was a brilliant move in as much as it brought the Twelve Tribes into a closer relationship with each other, both politically and religiously, the latter by means of designating the city as the pilgrimage center for the three ancient Israelite pilgrimage festivals of Pesach, (Passover), Shavuot (lit. “Weeks,” commemorating the giving of the Torah) and Sukkoth (Feast of Booths, a reminder of Israel’s desert wanderings).

Solomon, David’s son and successor, built the Solomonic Temple in Jerusalem that took the place of the movable desert sanctuary (‘ohel ha-mo’ed or Tent of Meeting). This was undoubtedly a further effort to unify the tribes and to strengthen the newly created geo-political nation. As presented in the Bible, it was done in response to God’s desire to dwell in a house.

After Solomon’s death, the misbehavior of his son Rehoboam, resulted in separation of the northern and southern tribes and the formation of two distinct countries.

Note: The ten northern tribes, calling themselves Israel, fell to an invasion by the kingdom of Assyria in 722 BCE whereas the remaining southern tribes, calling themselves the kingdom of Judah, fell to an invasion of Babylonia in 586 BCE.

Back to king David now and my reconstruction of Israel’s history.

A newly established nation needs a constitution or founding document that conveys to its own country’s population, as well as to its geographical neighbors, the raison d’etre for its existence. Such a document explains the justification for its incursion into and its establishment in the geographical and political space held by its previous owners; the salient events in history that led to and legitimize the conquest; the civil and religious legislation that would from here on guide its society in its pursuit of daily life; last but not least ,the relationship between God, king, nation and each individual.

It is here that king David’s and king Solomon’s historiographers went to work. By combing through the Hebrew tribal records, oral and perhaps also written, they found treasures that lent themselves for such an undertaking. Scouring the oral and written histories of Mesopotamia, in the north, and Egypt in the south, as also the myths and legends of the conquered land of Canaan itself, turned out to be helpful.

Their most important discovery was the Abraham (the Habiru?) stories, beginning in Genesis at chapter 12. “Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing… so Abram went as the LORD had told him.” According to Gen. 15, the commanding voice of the divinity said to Abraham, “I am the LORD who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess,” etc. And in Gen 15:18 a further promise, “On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land from the River of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kennizites, the Kadminites, the Hittites, the Perrizites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.”

The divinity’s alleged promise to Israel now fulfilled, was incorporated into the country’s founding document or, as I call it, the Constitution of the new land of Israel – the Torah.

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The Ancient Synagogue: A Mini-Introduction (in 3 or perhaps 4 short essays)

This is the first of a few brief essays that deal with some of the characteristics of the ancient synagogue. The idea of introducing our congregation to this subject must be attributed to our synagogue’s recent interior redesign. As we see the radical changes of this remapping of our shul space, questions come to mind such as what is the origin of the synagogue, does the term apply to the concept of congregation or to a building or to both, what was its original function, were all synagogue buildings built the same way, were there differences in the architectural conceptions of the synagogue between those in the Land of Israel and those in the diaspora, etc. etc.

While responding to all such questions would require the writing of a book, something that has, of course, been done, I want to deal in these essays with major aspects of synagogue existence and function. The origin of the term synagogue is especially interesting in view of the fact that the word is Greek while the institution is Jewish.

What does the Greek term “synagogue” literally mean? The syn is a prefix, meaning “together” and the rest of the word derives from the Greek ago meaning “to lead.” Combined, the word means “to lead together” or “to assemble.”

In the Septuagint, the oldest Greek version of the Hebrew Bible made for Greek speaking Jews in Egypt in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE, the Greek synagoge is most frequently used for the Hebrew edah (congregation) and sometimes for the Hebrew kahal (assembly).

With the 1st c. CE the term synagogue appears in Jewish sources such as Philo and Josephus as “place of assembly, house of worship and instruction,” and so also in the Greek New Testament.

About the same time the place of worship in Tannaitic literature (the writings of the tannaim, the sages of the mishna) is beit hakneset, “house of assembly.” Where these rabbis use the shorter form kneset alone, they refer to the congregation and not to the place of assembly of the congregation.

Can the beginning of the synagogue both as congregation and location of the assembly be determined? Unfortunately not. Rabbinic sources offer no help in the matter. There are passages in the Targum and in Midrash that suggest that the existence of the synagogue goes back to the inception of the Jewish people. But when was that? Was that with Adam and Eve (hardly!), the semi-nomadic Habiru tribe in Canaan, Abraham or Moses? To that question there is no absolute answer, other than the historical fact that we Jews have been around for a long time.

Next time: surprise about the synagogue’s multi-function and decor.