Warning: religion is always a controversial subject, and the information given below will depart in many cases from what believers in particular faiths accept as true; however it is representative of a good deal of nonsectarian modern scholarship. An outline of Jewish history:
Would you go over in more detail the periods during which the Jews were in exile or when they ruled themselves?
Good question. It’s always difficult to know how much of this to emphasize in class because some people learn it in Bible study classes and others have never encountered it before. The periodic exiles of the Jews are important for three main reasons: they help to explain how the religion evolved, they have become symbols of oppression and liberty for other peoples in many lands, and they help to explain current conflicts in the Middle East.
There is a chart on p. 27 of Duiker that gives you some of this, but I looked ahead further to put these early experiences in a larger context.
- About 4,000 years ago the ancestors of the Hebrews were wandering nomads. Biblical tradition says that Abraham, the founder of the line, came from Ur, but we cannot be sure that this was the Ur located in Mesopotamia. There are no records of these people except for the traditions laid down in the Bible many centuries later. The story says that Abraham entered Canaan briefly, and God promised him that his descendants would inherit the land. This is the earliest mention of a claim which was to prove controversial right down to the present day. It is the religious basis of the tradition that Israel belongs to the Jewish people because it was promised to them by God. Of course a long string of other inhabitants, from the Canaanites and Philistines to the modern Arabs who call themselves “Palestinians,” have disagreed. This era, up to the entry into Egypt, is known as the era of the Patriarchs (fathers): people like Abraham, Isaac, and Joseph.
- The Bible further says that some group of these nomads entered Egypt, perhaps around 1720 (this date is much disputed), to escape relief from a long-lasting drought, and found themselves enslaved permanently and treated badly by the Pharoahs. No trace of them has been found in any digging or record in Egypt (unless the troublesome nomads called “‘Apirus” in Egyptian records are the Hebrews, and most modern scholars doubt this–the dates are wrong). However, the general outlines of the story are plausible: it would make sense to go to the regularly flooded Nile valley to get food when one’s own territory was parched, the Egyptians did enslave foreign peoples, and the name “Moses” is a distinctively Egyptian one (there were Pharoahs with names like “Tutmoses,” for instance). However, the pyramids had been built long before this: only in Hollywood movies did the Hebrews work on the Pyramids.
- The book of Exodus, the second book of the Bible, tells the sensational story of Moses, and how he led the Hebrews out of captivity, purportedly with the assistance of ten devastating “plagues” inflicted on the Egyptians, including turning all the water in the land to blood and killing all the eldest children of the Egyptians. Forewarned, the Hebrews were able to spare their own children by sacrificing a sheep instead and smearing the blood on their thresholds so that the angel of death should pass by their homes. The ritual of Passover commemorates this pivotal event in Jewish history. If anything like this really happened, it probably occurred some time between 1300 and 1200 BCE. This is the first “exile,” the one which molded Jewish conceptions from then on and with which so many oppressed peoples, including African-American slaves, have identified.
- The Bible then says that the people leaving Egypt followed Moses to Mt. Sinai, where God made known his will by giving them not only the Ten Commandments, but a huge body of law later known as the Torah. Modern literary scholars suspect that much of this law was inserted into the Torah relatively late, by later generations who felt that certain traditions were so important that they must have been known even back in Moses’ time. It is possible to trace many historic layers in the Hebrew Law, but that is a topic for a more advanced class.
- The Torah says that because the Hebrew people sinned by doubting that God would rescue them and turned to the worship of other gods, including a golden calf, God punished them by making them wander for forty years in the wilderness (presumably in the Sinai Peninsula), until that whole generation had died. No traces of this sojourn have been found in the Sinai despite repeated attempts: many modern historians suspect that the truth may have been a much shorter transit of the Sinai Peninsula by far fewer people than are depicted in the Bible. Only their children were to be allowed to enter into the “promised land” of Canaan. People still frequently use the metaphor of “wandering in the wilderness” today to talk about some unpleasant form of exile or ostracism. In Jewish history, this experience of exile in Egypt followed by wandering in the wilderness becomes a metaphor for the struggle to discover God’s will and follow it; but it also becomes a lesson on the importance of compassion for others. Again and again the Hebrew Bible stresses the importance of being kind to foreigners, the poor, etc., and reminds the Jewish people of when they were wandering outcasts themselves.
- Although the Bible depicts a massively successful invasion and conquest of Canaan by the Hebrews (perhaps around 1240 BCE), there is a good deal of evidence to suggest that they slowly infiltrated the land and never conquered all of it, settling mostly in the higher hill areas, while groups like the Philistines continued to dominate the richer lowlands. Many modern scholars believe that the group coming out of Egypt actually united with various peoples already living in Canaan, and adapting their own Egyptian-influenced beliefs to those of the Canaanites, forged a new religion and created the “twelve tribes” which make up the traditional Hebrew nation. Little can be said for certain about this period, which is traditionally known as the period of Judges, after mighty leaders like Samson and even a woman–Deborah. These “Judges” seem to have been popular tribal leaders or heroic individuals rather than legal officers.
- Around 1050 BCE a monarchy was established and Saul chosen as the first king. The history books of the Bible (in the Hebrew Bible, they are part of the “Prophets”) are written from a pro-priestly, generally anti-monarchical perspective. Saul is depicted as a madman who is succeeded by the brilliant figure of David. It is David, not Saul, who becomes the ancestral figure that Jews look back to for political inspiration. Christians trace Jesus’ ancestry back to David for reasons we will explore later, so they too have paid great attention to this figure. He is said to have been a poet and musician (he is given credit for the whole collection of Psalms in the Bible, though modern scholars doubt that he was responsible for many of them, if any). Although he is portrayed as being especially blessed by God in the Bible, he is also portrayed as a sinner: the seducer of Bathsheba, the murderer of her husband. He is a richly complex figure. One relatively painless way to learn more about him is to rent the videotape of the feature film “King David” starring Richard Gere. It is the closest Hollywood has ever got to being faithful to Biblical history.
- The ambivalent attitudes of the historians who wrote the story of the Hebrew monarchy mean that this is the only national history which takes a critical stance toward almost all of its rulers, including the most beloved ones. The editors, probably living in the Babylonian Captivity (see below) blamed the monarchy for the loss of the Promised Land and the enslavement of the Jews; and they tell the story with an eye to its tragic conclusion.
- David’s successor was his son Solomon, a wealthy monarch who supposedly married 300 wives and had many more concubines, yet who was regarded as wise and pious early in his reign when he built the temple in Jerusalem. This is another pivotal event in Jewish history because once the priesthood at the temple became well established, they denounced all other regional shrines and tried to centralize all sacrifice in the capital city. Although they never entirely succeeded, this was a hazardous move because it could have meant that if the Jews were ever separated from the Temple, they would have to cease being Jews.
- In 930, after Solomon’s death, the land was divided into two rival and often warring kingdoms: Israel in the North, with Samaria as its capital and Judah in the south, with the capital remaining in Jerusalem. The Bible depicts these monarchs almost exclusively in terms of whether they enforced the worship of the Hebrew God (whose name may have been something like “Yahweh”–the name later became too sacred to pronounce, and only the consonants were written down). The writers refer those curious about other details of this period to histories of Israel and Judah which have long since vanished. Archeological evidence shows, however, that a king like Omri–a rather obscure figure in the Bible’s account–was internationally famous as a great ruler for generations after his death.
- Some of the more radical modern scholars have suggested that Yahweh was never the completely dominant God of the Hebrews: that his worshipers struggled against formidable odds to establish him at the center of the nation, more often failing than not. This would explain a good deal that is otherwise puzzling about the account of this period after 930; but the Bible depicts the people as “turning away” from a deity long worshiped by their ancestors.
- The Assyrians gradually conquered much of the Middle East in a long series of extremely violent campaigns in the 8th century. Samaria fell to them in 722, and the entire northern nation of Israel was subjected to their often merciless rule. It is assumed that much of the population was enslaved and many must have converted to the religion of their masters. These are the “ten lost tribes” of Israel.
- The Neo-Babylonian Chaldeans conquered the Assyrians and seized their empire, seeking to expand it further. After many attempts, they finally seized Jerusalem in 587 BCE and took most of the inhabitants into captivity in Babylon. This second exile is known as the “Babylonian Captivity.” The writers who experienced it compared their lot with that of their ancestors in Egypt, and a powerful body of writing and thought developed which defined their people as wanderers seeking a home in the land promised them by God.
- Cut off from the now-destroyed Temple in Jerusalem, the priests became radically less important. Figures like prophets and historians became the most important figures to keep alive the flame of Yahwism. They compiled and edited the histories of the past (the “Deuteronomic History”) to explain why a people supposedly chosen by God could have suffered such a disaster. But an important side-effect of their effort was to move the religion decisively away from an ethnocentric, nationalistic religion to a more abstract one which could be followed anywhere. It was at this point that the Torah (law) replaced the Temple as the heart of Judaism. Once again, exile becomes a defining experience for this people.
- The resurgence of Babylon was short-lived, because they were conquered by the insurgent Persians in 538, under Cyrus, a ruler who is depicted in the Bible as having been hand-picked by God for the purpose of returning the exiles to Judah. Some (but probably not most) did return to this land their parents had come from, but which was a legend for most of them. These would have been the hard core of Yahwistic believers; and from this time on we do not hear of renewed tendencies to worship “false” Gods. These people, now known as “Jews” after the land and tribe of Judah, now identified themselves completely with their religion, forged in exile. After a long delay, they tried to rebuild the Temple, but it was a pale shadow of its former self, and Judaism continued to flourish in people’s study of the law, in their daily lives, and was no longer exclusively tied to the Jerusalem Temple.
- One controversial but plausible thesis says that it was under Babylonian and Persian rule that the Jews were first exposed to Zoroastrianism and its beliefs in heaven and hell, a satanic opponent to a good God, angels, and much else that was adapted by them into the classic Judaism that we know today. Such ideas circulated at first mainly among the scholars later known as Pharisees, who created a popular form of Judaism which had little to do with the ceremonial Judaism of the Jerusalem Temple priesthood.
- The returned exiles did not return to freedom: they were still subject to the Persians, who were relatively benign rulers who interfered little in their internal affairs.
- In 331 Alexander the Great arrived with his troops as he swept through the Middle East on the way to conquer all of the world that he knew about. After his death in 320, his kingdom was subdivided into various Macedonian-ruled monarchies, with the Jews falling under the sway of the Ptolemaic dynasty ruling Egypt and other lands in the area.
- Eventually Syrian monarchs seized control, and the Greek/Syrian ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes tried to impose a strictly Greek culture on his realm, attempting to suppress Judaism by outlawing it and by defiling the Temple. Astonishingly a group of Jewish rebels led by the Maccabees succeeded in driving him out and freeing the land in 142 BCE, placing power back in Jewish hands for the first time since 587. Their reign, though brief, whetted the Jewish appetite for independence, and reinforced tendencies toward nationalism which have been revived at various periods in history. One incident from their victory of Antiochus is commemorated at annually at Hanukkah. (For more information, see Aish HaTorah’s Chanukah Site.)
- This brief period of independence was ended by Roman armies under Pompey in 63 BCE, when Judea became a Roman province. (It was also sometimes referred to as “Palestine” after the Philistines who also lived there. Because the Philistines were bitter historical enemies of the Jews, this explains why Jews general reject the name “Palestine” for their homeland.) The Romans were generally quite tolerant of other religions, and the Temple priests generally aligned themselves with Roman policy; but this alienated them from other Jews who resented Roman domination. Popular Judaism continued to develop richly among the Pharisees, who were busily creating classic Judaism as we know it, including slowly compiling what was to become the official collection of Hebrew writings we now know as the Bible.
- Roman tolerance of other religions was bounded, however, by their insistence on loyalty to Rome and the Emperor. They knew that the Pharisees were expecting a figure called “the Messiah,” who would lead a triumphant war of liberation against the enemies of the Jews and restore the royal line of David. Such hopes could only be seen as treasonous by the Romans. In a reckless attempt to impose loyalty they erected the Imperial eagle on the Temple, outraging many Jews. When the latter tore it down, they triggered a violent reaction: essentially war between Rome and rebellious Jews, which lasted from 66 to 73 CE; and whose most famous outcome was the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, leaving standing only part of the wall surrounding the Temple Mount, which is known today as the “Western Wall” or “the Wailing Wall,” where pious Jews from all over the world come to grieve and pray.
- Centuries later, in 687, triumphant Muslims built the shrine of the Dome of the Rock on the site of the old Temple, declaring it to be the site of Muhammad’s miraculous ascent into heaven (as well as the site of the near-sacrifice of Ishmael by Abraham, for in their version of the story Ishmael replaces Isaac). In modern times this site has been much contested, and during the Cold War some thought that World War III might begin there. Even in very recent years people have died because of conflicting claims to the Temple Mount; and it is one of the most intractable issues dividing Jewish Israelis and Muslim Palestinians. According to Messianic Jewish beliefs, the Messiah will appear here and the Temple must be rebuilt to bring in the Messianic age; but to do so they would have to tear down the Dome of the Rock, defiling the third most sacred spot in Islam.
- The end of the Temple marked the end of the priesthood as well. The Pharisees with their radical but popular ideas of an afterlife in Heaven or Hell, angels, resurrection, and a Messianic restoration of Jewish rule in Jerusalem (to be extended eventually to the whole world, with all nations worshipping the Jewish God) triumphed in the vacuum left behind by the death of “official” Judaism. Despite the hostile portrait made of them in the Christian scriptures, the Pharisees were genuinely popular, responding to the needs of the people whom they served. The Judaism of the next two thousand years was to be the Judaism of the Pharisees.
- In 132 CE radical Jews rebelled against Rome again under a fanatical and charismatic leader named “Bar Kokhba” (originally Simeon Bar Kosba) who many believed to be the long-expected Messiah. They were initially successful in some battles, but Rome was determined to crush the rebels, a remnant of which committed suicide at the fortress of Masada after Bar Kokhba himself was killed in 135. This mass suicide has often been cited in modern times by Jews as an example of the determination to fight back which has been necessary for them to survive as a people. Other Jews criticize this use of Masada as ultimately self-destructive. This is a complex subject, but you should know that the word “Masada” has powerful meaning for modern Jews.
- What about Jesus? you may be wondering. There is no clear reflection of his existence in the many Jewish writings that survive from this period. Several figures were presented as possible Messiahs during the first and second centuries, but by far the most successful of them among Jews was Bar Kochba. If we did not have the Christian scriptures, we would have no record of Jesus’ brief career among the Jews at all.
- The Romans drove the Jews out of Jerusalem and in so far as they could out of Judea altogether. This third exile is known as the “Diaspora” and was to be a powerful force throughout the next two millennia. Armed with their sacred books, their hopes, and their memories, the Jews scattered over much of Asia, northern Africa, and around the Caribbean, eventually winding up in such far-flung places as Russia and India: but always they were tied together by the Bible and by the Hebrew language in which it was written. It was no longer their spoken language (Jews in Judea spoke Aramaic, Jews elsewhere Greek); but it was studied as an ancient scholarly language in which God had spoken. In modern Israel the language has been revived and restored to daily use.
- The result of this troubled history has been that much of what makes classic Judaism Jewish was forged in the suffering of exile. The creation of the modern state of Israel, mostly by secular Jewish settlers at first, has enormously complicated the relationship between this history and current events; but much that you will read in the newspapers about crises in the Middle East can only be properly understood by understanding this background from many centuries ago.
Other Questions about the Hebrews and Judaism
So, In Judaism, has the Messiah not come yet?
Every once in a while a small sect of Jews proclaims that a particular rabbi is the Messiah, but most Jews do not accept such claimants. The answer is yes, the Messiah has not come yet for orthodox Jews.
What is the significance of the Minora?
It’s “menorah”–a seven-branched candleholder which is described in Exodus 25:31-40, to be used in the Temple. You can read more about menorahs at http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/menorah.html
How many wives did King David have?
Three: Michal, Abigail, and Bathsheba. Although this is not many compared to his son Solomon (300 plus 600 concubines), each of these marriages had its controversial and sensational aspects which you can read about in the Bible.
What did Hebrew people wear for clothing?
See Ancient Hebrew Clothing.
Is “being Jewish” a heritage alone without practicing the religion.
Yes, many people born of Jewish parents regard themselves as Jews while observing few or none of the religious customs associated with the Jewish religion. The vast majority of Jews in Israel are non-believers, for instance. Many Jews confine observe Passover, eat traditionally Jewish foods like bagels and lox or maintain a distaste for pork without adhering to other Jewish laws, much like nominal “Christians” who go to church only on Easter and want to be married in church, but otherwise ignore Christian customs and observances. The difference in the Jewish case is that Jewishness is seen as being genetically inherited, while it is possible to convert to the religion of Judaism.
What were the Jewish burial beliefs or customs?
Are, please. They are still around, though some are more ancient than others. Characteristics of Jewish funeral practice include sitting with the body while it is being prepared (it must never be left alone), washing the body, dressing it in a simple white shroud, burying it in a simple wooden coffin. The prayer called Kaddish is recited for thirty days after burial. One year after the death of a parent or close relatives, a candle is burned in their memory and the Kaddish repeated. Some communities veil the tombstone for 12 months and perform an unveiling ceremony at the end of that time. For more details see Life, Death and Mourning on the Judaism 101 site.
Was Hinduism born long after Judaism?
Neither religion has a really sharp, clear beginning point. It is often said that Hinduism and Judaism reached their classic forms around the same time, in the 5th century, BCE.
How did the prophets change Judaism, in detail? What gave them the power to say that there was only one God?
This is a big question, and is best studied in a textbook like Stephen L. Harris’ Understanding the Bible, which I mentioned in class. But it’s worth noting that the Bible mentions “false” prophets as well as true ones. There were many people who evidently felt God was speaking to them. Those whose teachings were accepted eventually by most Jewish are labelled authentic prophets. The prophets were not the first Jews to promote monotheism, though they were particularly fervent about it. Some prophets emphasized that God would move non-Jewish leaders like Cyrus to rescue the Jews, and even thought that God would physically transform the earth to reestablish them in Jerusalem. This emphasis on the unlimited power of God led naturally to believing that he was a universal god, and not just the god of the Jews.
I want to know if there is a Jewish calendar, and what is different about it?
The Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, based on the phases of the moon, and it moves in relation to the solar year. For a detailed explanation see Jewish Calendar. The calendar starts with the traditional date for creation, so that in the fall of 2000 Jews are observing the year 5,761.
What are some of the similarities between Judaism and Christianity?
Both believe in the same God, accept the Jewish Bible as in some sense the “word of God,” and have generally similar attitudes toward moral issues. Many Jews and Christians believe in life after death, in Heaven or in Hell, and in the existence of angels and demons. Christianity historically began as a variant form of Judaism, so it is only natural that the two should have much in common.
Why did the Jewish religion influence Christianity and Islam? Why is their history so influential on today’s society if they were such a minor culture?
Christianity evolved out of Judaism. Jesus and his early followers were Jews, and probably considered themselves Jewish reformers rather than founders of a new religion. The Christian Bible incorporated the Jewish Bible, so the bulk of Christianity’s most sacred writings are Jewish as well. Muslims also regard the Jewish and Christian scriptures as important, and many passages in the Qur’an resemble passages in the Bible. Although Muslims would deny it, many outsiders see their religion as partly modelled on and growing out of Judaism and Christianity.
What is the major difference between Judaism and Christianity?
Jews don’t believe that God would ever have a literal son, or take on human form. God is one, indivisible, and nonmaterial. Except for the tiny minority that became Christians in the first century and a few later, the vast majority of Jews have never accepted Jesus as the Messiah. They do not accept the belief in original sin, nor the notion that anyone has to die to take people’s sins away.
What is the Christian view of Jews?
There is no one Christian view–there are many: all the way from bigots who consider them cursed to others who revere their faith and take part in Jewish ceremonies. Many modern Christians acknowledge that Jesus and his disciples were Jews who practiced an innovative form of Judaism. An interesting book by a Jewish scholar about Jesus’ Jewish roots is Geza Vermes: Jesus the Jew.
What is the main difference between Muslims and Jews? How do their beliefs tie together?
We’ll learn more about this when we study Islam. The main difference is that Muslims believe the Jewish revelation in their Bible is incomplete and distorted (though they consider it a sacred book nevertheless, and accept Jewish prophets as Muslim prophets), and that the recitation of the Qur’an by Muhammad was necessary to make clear the will of God. Their chief similarities: strict monotheism, they worship the same god, prayer, fasting, rejection of images. Also facing toward a sacred location when praying (Jerusalem for Jews, Mecca for Muslims). Belief in angels, devils, heaven, hell (all of these only for Orthodox Jews).
At what time did Jews change to believing in one God?
It is now impossible to determine even roughly when the ancient Hebrews became monotheists.
What countries have Judaism as their main religion today?
Only Israel is dominated by Jews, but there are more Jews in the United States than there are in Israel. Jewish communities are scattered all over the world, in places as far-flung as India.
Why did the Jews think that Israel was such a sacred place?
Most people talk about their homeland as “sacred.” Listen to typical American politicians invoking God’s blessing on the U.S.A. But Jews, having been deprived of their homeland by the Babylonians, had special reasons to identify their continued survival as a people and as a body of believers with continued life in Israel. Judaism was forged in exile, so it naturally emphasizes the importance of home.
Why they don’t believe Jesus rose from the dead?
They, and other non-Christians, and some Christians, do not find the stories of Jesus’ resurrection in the Bible credible for many reasons, which I can’t go into in detail about here. But Jews believe that the resurrection of the dead will take place only with the coming of the Messiah (an event which has not happened yet), but that the Messiah himself, once born, will never die. For a Jew, the story of Jesus’ resurrection would not prove him to be the Messiah; instead the very fact that he died is taken as disproof that he was. There are special instances of dead people being revived in the Biblical stories of Elijah and Elisha, but these are very special miracles.
Difference between orthodox and non-orthodox Jews.
Reform Jews (very popular in the US, but not in Israel), do not accept the Bible as God’s literal word, and do not follow all the laws of the Torah. For more information see Movements of Judaism.
What is the connection between Yahwism and Judaism?
“Yahwism” is the term non-Jewish scholars use to describe the early forms of worship which were later to evolve into Judaism. It labels beliefs that concentrate on the God named “Yahweh.”
What conflicts did Jews have with other nations?
There are many fine histories of the ancient Israelites which go into this subject in detail. One of the most influential is Martin Noth’s History of Israel.
What is the difference between the religion in Palestine and in Israel?
In modern times, “Palestine” is what Muslims call “Israel,” so the short answer is that Palestinians are mostly Muslim, Israelis mostly Jewish (though there are Christian Palestinians and Muslim Israelis).
How did they perform their worship?
They prayed, rested on the Sabbath, and (while it existed), performed sacrifice at the temple. There are many religious observances in Judaism, but the religion does not focus on ceremonies and worship as much as other religions do, but on behaving in obedience to God. Judaism is a way of life.
Is Judaism an ethnicity or race, besides being a religion?
Modern biologists reject the concept of “race” as empty. Most modern ethnic Jews do not practice the Jewish religion, but they tend to have certain shared genetic traits that show many of them to be related. There are two major ethnic groups among Jews: the light-skinned Ashkenazim of Northern Europe, and the darker Sepharidim of Southern Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. Jews differ so much among themselves, however, that speaking of a Jewish “race” makes no sense.
What are the Jewish beliefs in the afterlife, and have they changed?
Modern non-orthodox scholars believe that the ancient Hebrews did not believe in Heaven and Hell, but instead in a sort of gloomy afterword called Sheol where everyone went. There is very little about an afterlife in the Jewish Bible. Only very late (perhaps around the 2nd century BCE) did any significant number of Jews develop the belief in an afterlife, and even today, it is not a very important part of Jewish belief. You can see the shift taking place in the first century, when the conservative Sadducees rejected the popular belief in the afterlife promoted by the Pharisees. The focus of Judaism is on living a good life now, not on preparing for a future existence. Most Jews who believe in heaven believe that righteous people of other religions can also go there. For more information see Olam Ha-Ba: The Afterlife.
What is Passover all about?
It is a commemoration of the escape from exile in Egypt, and an occasion for family reunions and celebration, in some ways like Thanksgiving. For more details see Pesach: Passover.
Why did the Jews choose to depict their kings as deeply flawed?
We don’t have any strictly political histories left. Such books are mentioned in the Bible, but no copies have survived. Instead, what we have are descriptions of Israel’s history from the point of view of priests writing during and after the fall of the divided kingdom who are trying to prove that the sufferings of the Jews were caused partly by the failures of their leaders. “Why did God allow such horrible things to happen to his Chosen People?” is the question the history books in the Bible are designed to answer.
Are there any records written by nonreligious figures that tell us more about other issues separate from the religion?
The earliest detailed writing about the Jews and their history is by Josephus, who tried in the first century to explain Jews to the Romans, but he based his history on the Bible. Only concerning his own period does he draw on other sources. Only the slightest of clues in scattered letters and inscriptions tell us anything about earlier Jewish history from a non-religious perspectives.
How did the Jews last so long? Why weren’t they wiped out from all the times they were conquered and exiled over the millennia?
Pious Jews would say God preserved his Chosen People. The fact that their religion evolved to center on beliefs enshrined in the Bible rather than in ceremonies to be performed in the Temple made their religion portable. In times of exile and oppression, the Torah gave Jews a sense of identity. Conforming to it made them more Jewish, and helped them survive as a people.
How did the constant exiles affect Jews as a culture; did many move away from religion?
The majority of the Jews exiled to Babylon clearly did abandon their beliefs, but since Judaism was forged in exile, in some ways it reinforced the beliefs of the faithful. It is interesting that conservative religious Jews make up a small (though influential) minority in modern-day Israel. Jews were more united in their beliefs when they were still in exile.
How closely related, if at all, is Judaism to Lutheranism?
Lutherans share the same reverence for the Hebrew Bible held by all Christians; but in some ways Martin Luther and other Protestants tried to strip away what they found recent and non-Biblical about Christianity. The result was to make it more like Judaism: rejecting veneration of saints, monasticism, Purgatory, the authority of the Pope and of priests, etc. Protestants tend to draw far more on the “Old Testament” (Hebrew Bible) than Catholics and Greek Orthodox Christians.
What proof is there of Noah and the Ark and flood? Is there archaeological evidence to support it?
The only geologists who accept the idea of a universal flood in ancient times are those who think the Bible requires them to believe it. Other scientists generally reject the story of the Bible as improbable if not impossible. For details, see the Talk.Origins Archive.
If the Jews were slaves in Egypt & suddenly left, why is there no record of it? Wouldn’t Egypt have suffered?
There are several possibilities. Some scholars think there were far fewer Hebrew slaves than the Bible depicts, and that the small number leaving would have gone unnoticed. The Egyptians certainly had lots of other slaves, so they would not have had a labor shortage. The Bible is quite accurate in depicting Egypt as the employer of last resort when hard times hit–lots of people emigrated there. But the Bible depicts a spectacular, miraculous departure whose absence from Egyptian official histories is hard to explain if you take it literally.
If it was OK for males to have up to 4 wives & as many slaves as he wanted, then what was considered adultery?
The four-wives limit is Muslim, not Jewish. I mentioned it as a comparison. Later Jews (by the time of Jesus, and much earlier) were monogamous: one man, one wife. However, the early patriarchs married more than one wife and did have children by their slaves, which seems not to have been disapproved of, though the law does not specifically endorse sex with slaves the way the Muslim Qur’an does. Anyway, having sex with a woman who was neither your wife nor your slave would be adultery. For a woman, having sex with any man not her husband was adultery. Jewish law is unusual in punishing men and women equally for adultery, though the definitions differ in the early times. When they become monogamous, men and women are subject to the same restrictions.
What are the rules of the Sabbath?
Essentially you are supposed to avoid work or travel on the Sabbath and engage in prayer and praise of God. The details are not spelled out in the Bible, but in the teachings of generations of rabbis who have worked out exactly what “work” is, and what may and may not be done. These can be very elaborate and this isn’t the place to go into them. You can read more on this topic at Here.
Why didn’t God want the Jews to create any kind of art that represented religion? Shouldn’t he have wanted to be recognized?
I can’t speak for the mind of God, but historians think that the main reason the Jews rejected religious imagery was that the law was a kind of insurance against worshiping other Gods. All other gods had images: if you aren’t allowed to make images you can only worship the one god that doesn’t–the Jewish God.
What is an awl, which the master pierced his slave’s ear with?
Just what you might think: a sharp spike with a handle for punching holes in leather, etc. You can buy them at any hardware store.
Do Jews have any rules for reaching Heaven like Christians do? Ex. You must believe in Jesus to reach Heaven.
Like Christians, different Jews believe different things. Not all Jews believe in Heaven (see Documents of Jewish Belief for various views), and many Jews in Jesus’ time did not. Generally, the path to Heaven is obedience to the laws in the Torah, including circumcision, the dietary laws, monotheism, etc. Some Jews believe you have to be born a Jew, others say you can convert. It is interesting to note that Paul talks about rabbis who would travel long distances to make a convert in the 1st century; and we know a lot of Romans converted.
I’m a little fuzzy on the lending $ subject. If the Christians said the Christians’ borrowing money from the Jews didn’t have to pay the Jews back, why did the Jews have high interest rates? If the Christians didn’t want to pay it back, how would the Jews get the $ and high interest rates anyway?
Imagine you’re a Jewish banker. X percent of your Christian clients refuse to pay you back and you can’t take them to court to get the money (the court scene in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Veniceis an antisemitic fantasy–nothing like it was remotely legal). So you have to charge everybody more to cover your expenses. Any business with high losses has high prices. Now imagine you’re a Christian businessman needing loans. You know that if you fail to repay your loan, no Jewish banker in the area will ever lend to you again. Unless you are headed for bankruptcy, you repay your loans because you need to maintain your credit, so you can continue to get more loans in the future.
Why are Jews not able to collect interest from other Jews?
The Law expects Jews to treat each other more or less as an extended family in this regard: you don’t charge your brother interest. It’s one of many laws aimed at softening interpersonal relations, making things easier on people.
I am a little confused about the exile of the Jews. Were they kicked out of Babylon or Jerusalem?
Taken away from Jerusalem by the Babylonians, to Babylon.
How do the Jews and Muslims both have a claim on Jerusalem? I’m not really clear on that.
There were no Muslims until the 8th century CE, but for most of the time between then and the mid-20th century, they were the chief inhabitants of Israel and Muslim rulers ruled over the land for most of that time. They tend to regard the Jewish claim to the land as going back much too far–almost 2,000 years–whereas they were in possession much more recently for the bulk of that time. Both sides view Jerusalem as a city sacred to their religion. Conservative Jews consider it the capital of Israel rather than Tel Aviv, but liberals are careful not to make that claim, because they don’t want to exacerbate Muslim-Jewish hostility. You’ll see in the news from time to time strong words exchanged when some American politician or other figure says that Jerusalem is the proper capital of Israel.
How are the Jews and Muslims related through Abraham?
Muslims claim that Arabs are descended from Ishmael, the first son of Abraham, whereas both Jews and Muslims claim that the Jews are descended from his son Isaac. Jews generally do not accept the Arab claim to be descended from Abraham.
Do the Jews still want to be separate from everyone else today?
Some very conservative Jews try to lead a separate existence within their own communities; but the vast majority of Jews mix freely with others. Indeed, half of all American Jews now marry non-Jews.
I saw a picture of a Jewish Haggadah called “The Birds’ Head Haggadah.” The human figures in the margins had bird heads with distinct beaks. Do those figures have any connection with the Egyptian human figures with bird/animal heads?
Probably not. This Medieval manuscript was written much later than any possible contact with Egypt. No one is sure why this was done, but it may have been to avoid depicting real living creatures, in order to obey the commandment against creating images of living things.
I’ve heard, on several separate accounts, that Judaism claims only Jews may enter and live in the “promised land.”
You may be thinking of the “Law of Return,” the law in Modern Israel which states that any Jew can claim citizenship in the country whereas other people have to apply for immigration and naturalization. Many non-Jews live in Israel, including Christians (many of them Arab Christians) and Muslims. The Bible states that eventually all the world’s peoples will come to worship in Jerusalem–so Judaism has a universalistic side to it.
Do you think that the Dome will ever be destroyed by the Jews?
I have no idea. Only a tiny minority of Israelis want to destroy it, and they are generally rejected by the vast majority of the population. More orthodox Jews feel that the Messiah will destroy the Dome and rebuild the temple, and that they must wait until he comes.
After the Jews were taken over by the Babylonians, did they build any other temples to worship at?
Although there are some modern places of Jewish worship called “temples” they are not to be compared with the Temple. According to Jewish belief, it is unique, and can only exist in Jerusalem, on the Temple Mount.
What is the religious significance of the Wailing Wall?
The Western (or “Wailing”) Wall is the one remnant of the foundation of the old Temple. It symbolizes the suffering of the past and the hope for the future. Orthdox Jews go there to pray for the restoration of the Temple in the days of the Messiah, but more generally, Jews hold it sacred because it is a general symbol of all the sufferings the Jews have endured and the promise of greatness they still cling to despite all that suffering.
Why don’t they just build the Temple around the Dome of the Rock?
The Bible is very specific about the location and shape of the Temple. It has to be in one piece–no holes–on top of the mount where the Dome is. The tiny percentage of Jews eager to rebuild it are also extremely traditionalist: they want it to look exactly like the original Temple. Anyone flexible enough to work around the Dome is not likely to want to rebuild the Temple at all.
I don’t understand the importance of Bar Kochba . . . just that he was thought to be a messiah? That people were claiming to be the messiah? Reinforcement that there was only one TRUE messiah . . . what?
Historically Bar Kochba is important because the rebellion he led in 132-135 CE prompted the final crushing of Jewish power in the Holy Land and greatly accelerated the diaspora: the scattering of Jews outside of Israel. Theologically he’s interesting because he illustrates the tendency of Messianic figures to emerge around that period. There were several. Bar Kochba was the only one to gain the endorsement of a leading rabbi (Akiva ben Yosef); but in the end he was remembered as a defender of Judaism, not as Messiah. For Jews he is a symbol of resolute resistance to anti-Jewish oppression. The suicides at Masada by his followers have been a somewhat ambiguous symbol for modern Israelis of their determination to resist their enemies. Most Jews admire his battles more than the suicidal conclusion of his campaign, while acknowledging his total dedication. That said, it is clear that he was not representative of all Jews in his time: many of them were probably shocked by him, and few followed him as Messiah. “Bar Kochba” was his messianic title. His original name was “Simeon Bar Kosba” or “Kosiba.”
How long did the battle involving Masada and the Romans last?
Most of the time it was a siege rather than a battle. The siege lasted 73-74 CE. For more about Masada, see the Jewish Virtual Library.
When did the change come from Hebrew to Jew. What’s the connection & what are the differences?
The two words mean the same thing in some contexts, but in history we tend to call the people who lived before the formation of the states of Israel and Judah “Hebrews.” Since the “Israelites” were taken off into captivity by the Assyrians and vanished from history, the only Hebrews left were the inhabitants of Judah, and “Jew” is an English word based on a Hebrew word meaning originally “inhabitant of Judah.” Hebrew is, of course, still the name of the language in which the Jewish Bible was written, and which is today the official language of the modern state of Israel.
I’d like to know more about how Judaism influenced Christianity.
We’ll cover some of this when we discuss Christianity later.
I’d like to hear about the King Solomon Legends (mines, temple, gold).
The references in the Bible to Solomon’s wealth led to many legends about him among Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. Modern interest in “King Solomon’s Mines” was stimulated by H. Rider Haggard’s fantastic novel of that title which built on racist ideas that indigenous Africans could not have been responsible for the astonishing ruins of Great Zimbabwe. See the film: Africa: A History Denied, for more detail.
What about more info on the similarities between the Canaanite and Jewish religions?
I talked in class about the similarity of their altars, their use of “standing stones,” and the names of their gods. For more information, an entertaining film to watch is part one of the “Testament” series, available at MMR. You can get extra credit for watching it and writing a report on it, as you can for any of the films listed in your packet.
Who decides who’s allowed to write the Bible?
It’s more a matter of deciding what preexisting writings are allowed into the Bible. The Bible was compiled over many centuries as more and more writings came to be seen as authoritative. The Jewish Bible is divided in three parts of decreasing age. The Torah, or Law, is the oldest. The Prophets are next, then everything else under the miscellaneous label the Writings. The final decision about what would be included in the Bible and what excluded was made by Jewish scholars at Jamnia (Greek name, the Hebrew is “Jabneh”) in the first century (Esther was the last book to be admitted), but the list of official books (the “canon”) was pretty well set for a long time before that. Catholics accept 7 books into the “Old Testament” which were eventually rejected by the Jews for their Bible; most Protestants use the same list as the Jews.
I would like to know exactly how accurate the Bible is as a historical reference.
There is no end to the arguments over this question. Again, the “Testament” series suggests a sort of consensus of modern non-fundamentalist scholars; but there is no real precision available. There is simply no independent evidence for the vast majority of events reported in the Bible, and its authors had every reason to reinterpret the past in the light of their beliefs. In brief, conservatives tend to seize on every bit of evidence that might support the Bible’s accuracy, and skeptics do the opposite, with the majority somewhere in the middle. It would be reasonable to assume that the more recent periods discussed in the Bible are more accurately depicted than the most ancient ones. You might take Humanities 335 (The Bible as Literature) as an introduction to this very complex topic.
More about the ten lost tribes of Israel.
The term “lost” misleads many people into thinking that there is some mystery about their loss. They were captured by the Assyrians and merged with them. However, many legends grew up, inside and outside of Judaism, about the eventual reemergence of these tribes from exile. Mormons believe that their descendants became the American Indians. There have been many other fanciful theories about them; but most historians are agreed that they were “lost” only because they lost the war and were enslaved.
Why can they beat their slaves–not to death–just to hurt? When was slavery abolished? Were their slaves Jews?
All slavery cultures allow the beating of slaves because slaves have very little motivation to obey their masters except fear: they aren’t being paid. The Jewish law is meant to moderate this practice. Neither Judaism, Christianity, nor Islam abolished slavery as a religious act at any particular point. The inhabitants of various countries abolished slavery, whatever their religion, mostly in modern times (the last two hundred years or so).
Why help your enemy?
Your enemy is not necessarily God’s enemy. Kindness is to be encouraged, even when it isn’t easy.
What about the Star of David? How does it tie in with the Jews?
Although the six-pointed star was used by Jews two thousand years ago, it was also used by Christians in the Middle Ages. It was made the official symbol of the Jews in Prague in the 17th century, to become near-universal as a symbol of Judaism in the 19th century. There is no Biblical authority supporting it. The Nazis forced Jews to wear the yellow star, which they adopted as a proud badge of heroism.
What are some examples of modern Jewish art?
Because of traditional prohibitions against figural art, few Jews excelled in the arts until modern times. Marc Chagall is the most famous of modern Jewish artists (he painted the ceiling of the Paris Opera and murals in the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, among many other works), but huge numbers of contemporary artists are of Jewish origin, though many of them do not practice the Jewish religion. Many of the leaders of the abstract expressionist movement were Jews. I haven’t found a good list of modern Jewish artists on the Web, but there is a good survey of earlier Jewish art. For an amazing list of modern Jews who have contributed to modern popular culture,look here.
Where was the Temple located? I want to know more about it.
See the Temple Mount site at http://www.templemount.org/
I would like to learn more about the Philistines.
There is a good article about them in the Encyclopedia Britannica online. Interestingly enough, the abuse directed toward the Philistines in the Bible led 19th century rebels to use it as a term of disapproval in regard to bourgeois values, so that to be a “philistine” in modern times means to be an unsophisticated person from the Middle Class–terminally “un-cool.”
How did the people of that time have the knowledge to build such great domes? If the work is all made out of stone, would men do the work–in today’s society cranes do the work. Stone is not light.
First of all, the ancient Hebrews didn’t build domes. The only domes I showed you were on much later houses in Jerusalem–I pointed them out as being the one thing that was much later in style. They did have draft animals like oxen, and in the Roman period had excellent pulley systems and muscle-powered cranes. I’ll show you a picture of one in the Roman lectures.
I do not think that I had ever heard that Cleopatra was Greek and not Egyptian. I found that interesting.
The Ptolemies were descendants of Greek followers of Alexander the Great who adopted the Egyptian religion and lifestyle. There is some information about Cleopatra in the film “Who Was Cleopatra?” which you can watch for extra credit.
I would like to know more about why the Jews were treated so badly.
I assume you mean in post-Biblical times. Much of this is outside the scope of the course, and there is no unbiased interpretation of history, but here’s my brief take on anti-Jewish persecution through the ages. The authors of the Christian scriptures used Jewish prophetic writings to differentiate the new faith from those who remained faithful to the Torah and created a negative view of Jews which was continuously reinforced throughout the 1900-year-long period of Christian dominance in Europe. The prophets were pious Jews denouncing their fellow Jews for failing to be sufficiently and truly Jewish; but their words were twisted by Christians and others to turn them into denunciations of Judaism itself. The Qur’an contains negative comments about Jews too, but until recently Muslims have been less harsh toward the Jews in most places. In the Middle Ages Christian discriminatory laws drove Jews out of most professions except banking and some forms of trade. When Jews prospered at the few jobs they were allowed to hold, they were the target of jealous anger by Christians. Recent research, however, has also shown that anti-Jewish prejudice was expressed only sporadically throughout the Middle Ages, with long periods of time seeing peaceful coexistence of Christians and Jews. In periods of crisis, as in the Crusades, the Black Death, and the Protestant Reformation, things got worse for the Jews. Since the Christian scriptures had placed blame specifically on the Jews and their descendants for having killed Christ, fanatics would often use them as scapegoats when they couldn’t deal with their own problems. Many Jews still living can remember being chased down the street by young Christians throwing rocks at them, calling them “Christ killers.” Antisemitism was widespread in Europe and America before Hitler came along (study the Dreyfus case in France some time); he only capitalized on a preexisting prejudice. Religion created the prejudice, but once it was deeply engrained in European society, it could be manipulated even by an atheist like Hitler.
What is the origin of Islam and why are they constantly fighting with the Jews?
We’ll learn about the origin of Islam later in the semester. Muslims have not always fought with Jews; but as you’ll see the Qur’an, the Muslim holy book, has some rather harsh statements in it about Jews, though Judaism as a religion is admired. They are closely related religions, founded by people who were ethnically very closely linked; but this closeness has often led them to feel their differences more keenly. Modern Muslim/Jewish conflicts mostly stem from the displacement of Arab Muslim inhabitants of Palestine (the “Palestinians”) during the creation and settlement of the modern state of Israel a half century ago. Often these conflicts have little to do with religion (most Israelis are not religious). Recently tensions have eased somewhat, with the Muslims and Israelis signing a series of peace agreements. As we’ll see later, during the Moorish era in Medieval Spain, Jews and Muslims often lived peacefully together.
What is the main religious text for the Jews?
What is the Torah?
There is some information about this on the first page of the readings from the Hebrew Bible in Reading About the World (p. 33). The short answer is that the Torah is the law, the first division of the Hebrew Bible, consisting of the first five books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These books are often referred to by Christian scholars as “the Pentateuch.” Since the Torah is only the first of three parts of the Hebrew Bible it is incorrect to use the term “Torah” as if it were synonymous with “Bible.” The other divisions are the Prophets and the Writings. Christian Bibles ignore these divisions and arrange some of the materials slightly differently, but one can safely say that the Christian “Old Testament” is equivalent to the Jewish Bible, except that the Catholic Bible has seven additional books (plus a few odd additions to various books) in it which were originally written in Greek, not Hebrew. Every orthodox Jewish synagogue has a hand-copied scroll of the Torah which is kept in a special holder and read from during services.
Are there any more similarities between the Torah and the Bible?
See above: the Torah is the first five books of the Jewish Bible and of the Christian Bible alike.
I was very surprised to learn how similar the Christian & Jewish creations stories are.
They are identical for the reason that the Jewish book of Genesis is the first book of the Christian Bible. There is no separate Christian Creation story–though John 1 contains an interesting theological interpretation of the Jewish story. In fact, the whole “Old Testament” is the Jewish Bible. Add on gospels, espistles, and Revelation, and you have the Christian Bible. It’s not a different book–just the older book plus additions.
If the first five books of the Jewish Torah is in the Bible, why are Christians not Jewish even if we use the same Bible? Are the Christians the real deal? Or are they the rebels that branched off Jewish beliefs?
Remember those extra books: they contain the beliefs that make Christian different, and they also contain radical reinterpretations of the Jewish Biblical texts. Christians and Jews read the “Old Testament” quite differently from each other. Christians would claim to be “the real deal” and Jews would regard them as having “branched off.” It all depends on your point of view.
Is there a major difference between Jewish and Christian Passovers?
Passover is a specifically Jewish observance, not a Christian one. Some modern Christians observe some kind of ceremony on Passover to express solidarity with the Jewish heritage which lies in back of Christianity, but that is far from traditional.
Why were Jewish laws so specific? Were there more laws that were left out? Why is there such a difference between “man” slave and woman?
Historians believe the laws evolved over a long period of time, and that the present Torah is a compilation of many different law codes, some of which went into fine details of special concern to the priests. There is a large body of commentary on the Jewish law in the Talmud which fills in many details not spelled out in the Torah. No ancient culture treated men and women as equal.
Why did Jews & Christians become so exclusive when prior religions wren’t?
The key is monotheism. If you believe there is only one God and that it is evil to worship any other god, then you are likely to be pretty exclusionary. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are alike in this regard.
I would like to know more about the sacrifices.
The Book of Leviticus contains very detailed prescriptions for various sorts of sacrifices. Leviticus 16:20 begins the account of the famous sacrifice of the “scapegoat,” which became a model for Christian theology. Since later Judaism prohibited all sacrifices outside the temple, the sacrificial rituals have been suspended for almost 2,000 years. All ancient peoples seem to have felt that the gods were pleased (or appeased) by gifts of meat, wine, oil, etc. Certain sacrifices in which the entire offering was completely burned up are called offerings of “holocaust.” This term was used with dark irony by the Jews in the Nazi concentrate camps of their own fate: being burned to ashes. Most non-Jews had never heard the term before and assumed it was strictly associated with this attempt at exterminating the Jews. Later usage extended it to other disasters like “nuclear holocaust”; but originally it is just a certain kind of ritual offering.
Was the Ark of the Covenant the one from “Raiders of the Lost Ark”?
Yes, but the movie was pure fantasy, based on the fact that in the Bible it is said that when a non-priestly man reached out to steady it on its cart he was punished by being struck down dead by God. The movie built on this image of a box “charged” with power; but the original point was to reinforce the lesson that only priests should touch the Ark.
Is the Phoenician alphabet the origin of the phonetic system of learning to read that we have in the U.S. today?
“Phoenician” and “phonetic” have nothing to do with each other, but the Latin alphabet we inherit does descend in a pretty straight line from the Phoenician one.
Everyone says Ahab was a good king with a bad press agent. What great things did he do?
That may be overstating the case. His father Omri was so powerful and influential that other nations referred to the rulers of Israel for long afterward as “the house of Omri.” Ahab ruled over a large territory and revived an alliance with the Phoenicians (the prophet Elijah hated this because he saw alliances with non-believers as bad–and Ahab’s queen Jezebel set up a temple to the Canaanite god Baal). He defended Israel against Assyria, and was finally defeated in battle against it. So he was a success as a ruler, valiant but doomed as a general, and hated by the religiously conservative groups who opposed his openness to alliances and other faiths. 1 Kings 16-22 portrays Ahab as a violent and greedy ruler with a wife so wicked that her name became a label for evil women ever after–Jezebel. The story of Naboth and his followers is usually cited as an example of Ahab’s tyranny. Whatever the truth about Ahab, we need to keep in mind that the Bible authors are generally interested in just one question: is the ruler an exclusive worshiper of the Jewish God, repressing all rival religious practices? Flexibility like Ahab’s is seen as the worst possible sin in a monarch. His name was borrowed by Herman Melville for his whale-obsessed Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick.
Something I am interested in is the role women played.
You’ll see some of this in the readings; but I can also recommend a good recent book in the library: Carol L. Meyers: Discovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context.
If there is no archaeological evidence of the Jews in ancient times, how can we know they existed?
Many references to places, styles of architecture and ways of life in the Bible can be substantiated through archaeology. By about 600 BCE there is scattered evidence of Jews in Israel, growing greater as you approach the turn of the millennium. The Testament film series assesses the evidence well.
The Jews eventually considered God’s name too sacred to pronounce. Since ancient Hebrew had no written vowels, the “sacred tetragrammaton” was rendered through four characters which may be translated as “YHVH.” It is fairly certain that the first syllable must have been “yah” because there are so many sacred words that contain that element, like “HalleluYAH” (“praise God”). Modern Jews sometimes imitate the ancient practice of spelling “God” by using only the consonants and an asterisk: “G*d.” He is also referred to both in English and Hebrew as “the Lord” and one substitute name using the ancient tetragrammaton is “Jehovah.” Modern Jews generally do not use the term “Yahweh” (the “W” is pronounced like a “V” as in German (German scholars first developed this theory; the “J” in “Jehovah” is also pronounced like a “Y” in German and Hebrew), but Christian scholars often do. Yahweh is simply God’s name; he is the same god worshiped by the Christians and Muslims.
I would like to learn more about what beliefs are the same for all religions.
Although people often assert that the essence of all great religions is the same, this usually reduces itself to a general belief in a supernatural realm and a handful of common-sense moral rules. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are genetically related, with each later one building on and reinterpreting its predecessors; but they have precious little to do with–say–Zen Buddhism. Many religions share similar views on mystical experience, but some (like Sunni Islam and mainstream Protestantism) discourage mysticism. What religions have in common is that they are patterns of belief and conduct which we choose to label with the term “religious.” Westerners often regard Confucianism as a religion, for instance, though in its origins it is more of a philosophy, later given religious attributes through contact with traditional folk beliefs and Buddhism. In certain interpretations of certain varieties of Hinduism and Buddhism it can be asserted that they even reject the concept of gods, to look toward a “higher” more abstract spiritual realm which has no divine personality. Thus one occasionally hears the term “atheist religion.” We’ll be comparing religions all semester long, and you can make up your own mind what you think holds them together.
What kind of music were the psalms set to?
If you mean the original music, we have no idea what it was like, though there is a compact disc in the library (La musique de la Bible révelé) which contains the melodies which one scholar claims she has deciphered from the Hebrew text–however these are not very persuasive. There is no knowing whether ancient Hebrew music sounded like–say–modern Arabic music. Beginning in the Middle Ages, however, the psalms were repeatedly set to whatever style of choral music was in fashion at the time. Some of my personal favorites are the settings of Sweelinck, a Dutch Protestant who used a French translation of the texts.
More about the Dead Sea Scrolls
You’ll find lots more about them at http://www.deadseascrolls.org.il/?locale=en_US. However, a couple of points that are more controversial are worth making. One early best-selling book on the scrolls argued that Jesus may have studied at Qumran or been influenced by the thinking of the Essenes. Some scholars continue to argue variants of that position. Even more controversial is the argument that Qumran was not an Essene site at all and that the Essenes were not the authors of the scrolls. Scholars taking this position argue that Judaism was much more varied than conservative scholarship is willing to allow, and that the unorthodox teachings found in some of the scrolls reflected the thought of groups in Jerusalem itself, who hid the scrolls in the desert during the wars with Rome. They argue that the concept of “mainstream” Judaism as we know developed later, in the diaspora. At the least it can be said that the existence of the “Essene” texts found at Qumran show the kind of extreme variety that existed in contemporary Judaism which could lead the early Christians to believe that their radical reinterpretation of religion was a legitimate one. There was evidently a great deal of ferment and jockeying for position around the turn of the millennium.
Why were Christians selective in picking from the laws the Jews wrote?
Jesus was known to have taken a radical approach to some of the laws (particularly on diet and Sabbath observance, though he did align himself with some other rabbis (teachers) in doing so. If he claimed, as the gospels imply, to be bringing a new revelation from God, he would have had to reject many Torah traditions, including the notion that the law was closed. Confusingly, he is also quoted as endorsing the entire body of the law down to its finest details. These conflicts may reflect tensions within the early Church, which influenced the writing of the gospels. Paul (whose writings were the earliest to find their way into the Christian scriptures and which influenced the gospel writers) went further, consigning huge tracts of Jewish law to the dead past and viewing parts of it almost as a curse (his language is highly ambiguous–even contradictory–on this point). Christians subsequently have argued endlessly over which of the ancient Jewish laws they should observe. Paul gave them permission to abandon circumcision and the dietary laws, and that pattern has generally been followed (the American practice of circumcising males is not based in religion except for Jews and Muslims). Some of the laws dealing with observance of the Jewish Sabbath were transferred to the observance of the Lord’s Day, later called the Christian Sabbath.
Where did Catholicism branch off from ancient Christianity?
First, it is important to be clear that Catholics (and many protestants) do not consider the Catholic Church to have “branched off” from early Christianity at all–they consider most other branches of the faith to have “branched off” from them. Second, remember that for most of the past 2,000 years the vast majority of Christians in the world has consisted of Roman Catholics (the second largest group being Eastern Orthodox). Extremist modern Protestants sometimes characterize Catholicism as “un-Christian,” thereby dooming millions of believers over thousands of years to Hell as deluded heretics. This is an issue fraught with tensions, historically culminating in vast wars and widespread persecution.
From a modern secular perspective, it is impossible to know precisely what the earliest believers believed and whether what they believed matched what Jesus taught. A great deal of ingenious scholarship has gone into trying to retrace the development of the early Church; and many scholars conclude that “pure” Christianity is unattainable, that already by the time Paul and the gospel writers influenced by him were writing, the Christian community had so thoroughly “mythologized” Jesus that his original teachings were no longer recoverable. This approach is especially associated with the German theologian Rudolf Bultmann, whose writings during the middle of the 20th century continue to influence much work on early Christianity today, including the work of the radical “Jesus seminar” which receives considerable publicity in the press. For much more detail on the early evolution of the image of Jesus, see the PBS Website “From Jesus to Christ.”
Officially, the Catholic Church considers that it was founded by St. Peter himself, Jesus’ chief disciple, and that he was the first Pope. Few outside the Catholic Church agree. Most historians suggest that the supremacy of the Bishop of Rome was a result of the split between the Eastern and Western halves of the Empire in the fourth century CE. In this view, the Catholic Church would have evolved in the power vacuum left behind by the fall of Rome to barbarian invaders in the mid-fifth century. This is a vast topic, needing far more study than can be engaged in here. At any rate, no one should say “Catholics are not Christians” without being aware that this is taken by all Catholics and many Protestants as a gross and ignorant piece of bigotry.
What are the differences between various Bibles?
There is a brief introduction to this topic on p. 33 of Reading About the World. For a thorough survey you should take a course like Humanities 335: The Bible as Literature. But a few additional comments may be useful here. The Hebrew Bible as we now know it was finally assembled and fixed in its form slightly after the time of Jesus. Thus not everyone agreed with what should be considered inspired scripture when he was alive, at least not among the “Writings,” the third division of the Hebrew Bible. Jews living outside of Judaea had developed the “Septuagint,” a Greek translation which incorporated many additions, including seven whole books which were not in the Hebrew original. The early Christians seem to have relied a good deal of the Septuagint and translations like it. Many of the passages Matthew cites seem to come from Greek translations rather than from the Hebrew original. Thus the early Christian Church was faced with a dilemma when it realized that it had endorsed as “inspired” a version which often differed strikingly from the traditional Hebrew text. Their solution was to consider both versions independently inspired, and to include the Greek additions as “deuterocanonical”–not in the original Bible, but nevertheless valuable. Even the original edition of the Protestant King James version of the Bible contained the “extra” books, though they are omitted in modern editions. Some of the most popular tales in the Middle Ages, influencing art, architecture, literature, and even music, come from these deuterocanonical books (Protestants tend to call them “apocryphal”) especially the tale of Tobit and Susannah and the elders (a modern opera based on the latter story was performed here at WSU in the spring of 1998). Modern readers often enjoy the book of Wisdom.
An intriguing theory has been put forward concerning the dispute of the Samaritans and “Orthodox Jews.” The Hebrew Bible claims that the Samaritans were non-Jews who moved into Samaria after its conquest by Assyria and got the religion all wrong. The Samaritans claim that on the contrary they adhere to the original form of Judaism which accepted only the Torah as sacred; and that the now “orthodox” faith is an adaptation which developed in the Babylonian exile. It is impossible to prove one side or the other of the argument at this point, but it is interesting to speculate about.
What is the difference between the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil?
It is stated in the story of the Fall that if Adam and Eve had eaten of the tree of life they would have become like gods, living forever. By eating the tree of knowledge of good and evil they gained (or were cursed by) an awareness of guilt and sin. In mythological terms, the Tree of Life is an explanation, parallel to that in the Epic of Gilgamesh, of why humans are not immortal. Eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and you gain the knowledge of good and evil (a sense of morality–and guilt); eat of the Tree of Life and you would seem to gain eternal life, free from any sort of death.
Why were there two different creation stories?
When scholars a couple of centuries ago noticed that there were apparent inconsistencies in Genesis, notably in the first two chapters and in the story of the flood, they speculated about the causes of these discrepancies. The standard explanation that evolved is known as the “four-source” hypthesis which states that the Torah resulted from the editing together of four originally independent traditions known as Jahwist (J), Elohist (E) (after the two earliest names given God in the Bible), the Deuteronomist (D), and the Priestly (P). According to this theory–which is accepted in some version or other by the majority of non-fundamentalist scholars–Chapter 1 of Genesis is by P, who was concerned particularly with ceremonial law (Sabbath observance in particular), followed by E’s creation at Chapter 2, Verse 5, concerned more with ethical issues. The striking inconsistency in the order of creation was glossed over by earlier readers and continues to be “explained away” by fundamentalists today; but it is widely considered one of the keys that enabled us to understand the evolution of the Bible as we have it. It is interesting to note that Hindu scriptures contain many varied and inconsistent creation stories, which seems to bother no one, since literalism is not a prominent characteristic in Hindu theology. Today many churches teach that each story has lessons to teach and reject the idea that the stories told in Genesis are scientifically accurate. The current Catholic Pope has stated officially that a belief in Darwinian evolution is not inconsistent with the Catholic faith, which shows how far “mainstream” theology has evolved in the past century.
Who besides Ishmael was Abraham’s second son?
Isaac, the ancestor of the Hebrews. Jews regard him am as far more important, and Ishmael as the ancestor of their old enemies, the Edomites.
What image from the story about the Hebrew creation narrative and the story of the Fall influenced later images of the Virgin Mary?
I asked this question to find out whether you’re reading the footnotes. See the last footnote to the Fall story.
Why were the Ten Commandments important?
The short answer is that the ancient Hebrews said they were important. They isolated them, repeated them, and placed them at the head of the body of law in the Torah, probably because they incorporate unique features of Judaism (Sabbath observance, monotheism, rejection of “idols,” and universal commonplaces accepted widely by all human communities: abhorrence for murder, theft, etc.
Why is God referred to as plural in the creation story, especially if Judaism is such a devoutly monotheistic religion?
This is one of the great mysteries of Genesis. God twice speaks of “us” as if he were referring to himself and some other beings. In addition, the ancient word for “God” used in the second creation story–“Elohim”–is a plural form treated as if it were singular. We can safely dismiss the theory that God is using the “royal we” (modern monarchs traditionally refer to themselves in the plural and politicians seem to have picked up the habit). No such pattern existed in ancient Hebrew culture, nor is it repeated later in the Bible. The Medieval Christian notion that God was referring to the Trinity is hopelessly unhistorical and un-Jewish. Any good Hebrew would have been scandalized by the notion of God having three “persons” or subdivisions. Jews and Christians alike have argued that since the creation story provides no clear account of the creation of the angels, he may be speaking of himself together with them; but modern scholars argue that angels were a relatively late intrusion into Judaism and are not treated in such a fashion elsewhere. The most radical interpretation is that at some early stage the Hebrews were not in fact monotheists and that these are faint traces of their old polytheism so ancient that they had become sacred and unchangeable even when the Hebrews developed the belief in only one god. There is some evidence that the early Hebrews were “Henotheists”–admitting that other gods existed but insisting that only their own be worshiped. The others were “false” but not necessarily unreal. At any rate, they did develop into absolute monotheists and the strange plurals in Genesis 1 and 2 remain to puzzle readers who find none of these explanations completely satisfactory.
I would like to know more about different theories about the relationship between men and women based on Adam and Eve.
If you are a believer in the literal truth of the Bible, the story in Genesis explains why women are subordinated to men, why women suffer in childbirth, why men have to dig in the fields, etc. In fact, some 19th-century preachers insisted that anesthetics should not be used by women in labor because the Bible commanded them to suffer in childbirth (but nobody seems to have argued against air conditioning in offices because the same text says that men will earn their living from the sweat of their brows). Both traditional Jews and Paul drew conclusions about the subordinate place of women from this story. The Catholic Church eventually developed the idea of the Virgin Mary as the “New Eve” just as Christ was the “New Adam” (a Pauline idea). Hence Mary is often depicted crushing the serpent of sin under her heel, as the story in Genesis “predicts.” Modern feminist theologians sometimes argue that the creation of Eve out of Adam’s rib makes her a more refined, advanced creature; or that her birth from his side suggests equality. The more radical among them have developed a great interest in the Jewish tradition referring to Adam’s “first wife”–Lilith, who is only rarely referred to in the Bible and does not appear in Genesis. In the Talmud (the classic Jewish commentary on the Hebrew Bible) she is treated as an evil creature; but modern feminists have made her into something of a heroine, a role-model for independent-minded women. Social historians view these stories as illustrating historical attitudes relating to the sexes. From a mythological point of view, many cultures have myths “explaining” why women are subordinated to men: this is the Jewish myth.
I would like to know more about women and whether there is anything for which they were admired?
This is a hot topic among modern scholars, though a still-stimulating analysis called The Woman’s Bible was published over a hundred years ago. Women are usually marginalized in the Bible, praised mainly as the bearers of important sons, but there are exceptions. Deborah, Jael, and Judith (in the Septuagint) are all military heroines who save their people. Jacob’s favorite wife Rachel is celebrated as clever, Ruth (not originally a Jew) loving and faithful, Esther courageous and beautiful. For more about Biblical women, see Carol L. Meyers: Discovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context.
What was the reason Judaism’s God made the Seventh Day for rest?
Genesis doesn’t give a reason except that was the day after God finished creation. Some modern scholars think the seven-day week derived from a lunar calendar in pre-Jewish times, and that the creation story was written to explain a preexisting weekly observance, but nobody knows for sure.
If Christians don’t celebrate the Sabbath on Saturday, why do calendars in the U.S. start with Sunday?
I don’t know; but it is interesting to note that many European calendars more consistently place Sunday as the last day of the week on the right-hand-side page. If someone would research the history of this anomaly I’d be grateful.
What does “coveting” mean?
Literally “envying,” in the sense of desiring to have what someone else has. Many interpreters feel this doesn’t refer to mere feelings of envy, but to the temptation to improperly take from someone else what is desired. Otherwise it would be an unusual prohibition because it would focus purely on feelings and not on actions, like the other prohibitions in the law.
Why couldn’t the Jews say or write God’s name?
They could write his name, but only using the consonants. At first this was a natural by-product of the fact that early written Hebrew lacked signs for the consonants, which were “understood.” Later Hebrew incorporated marks to signal what vowels were to be inserted, however; but by that time the original vowels in YHWH had been forgotten. Many cultures have “secret” names which must not be uttered aloud. The origin of this tradition is so ancient that it cannot be traced, but the Bible includes a tradition of God having revealed his name to Moses on Mt. Sinai. This story certainly underlined the sacredness and mysteriousness of the name. Some historians suspect that the distinction between “Elohim” and “Yahweh” simply developed from the fusion of two different streams of belief referring to God in two different ways; eventually the first became a common noun and the second a name.
How many different prophets were involved in writing the Bible (Old Testament and New Testament)?
The following books are attributed in the Hebrew Bible (what Christians called “the Old Testament”) to individual prophets: Amos, Ezekiel, Habakkuk, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Joel, Malachi, Micah, Nahum, Obadiah, and Zephenaiah. It is not clear that these men actually wrote these books which claim to report their teachings; others may have recorded them. In addition, modern scholars believe that there are at least three “Isaiah’s” behind that vast compilation. Daniel and Jonah are about the prophets named but do not present themselves as being by those prophets. In the Hebrew Bible they are included in the Writings rather than in the Prophets, and modern scholarship dates them to a period long after the others. Other figures in the Bible are called prophets: notably Elijah and Elisha. Most of the Bible is not associated with prophets, and none of the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) is. Although Jesus makes many prophecies, he is not labelled a prophet by Christians, though he is by Muslims.
I would like to know why the Jews thought nakedness was so bad.
Many–perhaps most–ancient cultures had some kind of taboo on nudity, probably created out of a sense of shame about the unruly organs they associated with the powerful, fearsome force of sexuality. We can’t know now why the Hebrews developed a hostility so much stronger toward nakedness than did–say–the Egyptians, Minoans, or Greeks; but it caused problems when during the Hellenistic period many young Jews wanted to participate in Greek athletic events, which were always performed nude (legend says so they couldn’t conceal any trickery during the competition). Since Jews were highly recognizable by their circumcisions when nude some of them underwent a painful operation to create an artificial foreskin so that they could compete equally in the games. This, of course, was abhorred by pious Jews. One of the most striking tensions in the art of the Western World has been the tension between the Judeo-Christian abhorrence of nudity and the Greco-Roman celebration of it. We will look at some of the results later in the semester.
Explain more about who wrote these items like the Law, Passover Haggadah, and such and how they were found; or were they just passed down and recopied for hundreds of years?
Again, only a whole course in the Bible could get into this; but some of the most ancient traditions must have been passed down orally previous to the invention of writing among the Hebrews. Scholars explain many of the inconsistencies in the story of Abraham by arguing that different traditions have been loosely welded together at a relatively late date. We know think that Jews had a written language fairly early in their national history, but whether the books of the Bible as we have them today represents their original form is very much open to dispute. What is clear is that after they came to be considered the sacred word of God great care was taken to make each copy as close as possible to the previous one. After the first century, copies of the Hebrew scriptures show remarkably few variants. The long period before that, however, is shrouded in mystery–or at least, in controversy.
I would like to know why the day begins at sunset rather than at midnight for the Jews.
Sunrise and sunset are logical markers, easy to recognize and universal. Since the observance of holy days like the Sabbath is eagerly looked forward to, it makes sense that they would begin at the earliest possible moment, when “day is done.” Muslims follow the same pattern. The New Year begins at sunset, not “midnight.” The concept of “midnight” is a relatively modern one, and the term doesn’t even make much sense with many modern people only beginning their evening’s rest then or later.
I want to know more about Jewish Holidays.
Yahoo has a great collection of links.
What are the seven deadly sins?
These are not Biblical. In the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church identified them as serious sins which were sufficient to damn your soul to hell if you did not repent and atone for them: pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth (laziness). They are often carved as figures, usually female, on the fronts of churches. It is interesting that “sin” has been reduced in most people’s minds to just one: lust. It shows how much more interested we are in people’s sexual misdeeds than in–say–their overeating.
Have you read The Bible Code.
I haven’t, but I’ve read reviews of it and don’t think very highly of the methodology involved. The human brain is programmed to create patterns of significance out of randomness, and it is easy to trick ourselves into seeing hidden truths where none exist. Try following some of the links up in the Skeptic’s Dictionary article on the subject.
Is there a real garden of Eden? Are there pictures?
Of course Genesis suggests that if there were, we humans wouldn’t be allowed in. There is no widespread tradition of a specific locale identifiable with the Eden of the Bible.
I want to know more about the laws.
This is a huge topic. For those of you not interested, this is the last question covered in this section on Judaism. Here are just a few examples. You can read the rest in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy (there are a few scattered laws in Genesis, but they are mostly repeated later). I am quoting the King James Version because it is in the public domain:
Exodus 22:25. If thou lend money to any of my people that is poor by thee, thou shalt not be to him as an usurer, neither shalt thou lay upon him usury.
Several ancient cultures banned lending money at interest as immoral, including the Romans. Christians followed suit, but Jews were allowed to lend money to non-Jews. Thus began the tradition of Jewish money-lending, profitable to both Jews and Christians; but causing Christians to enviously caricature Jews as greedy. Some historians hail the Protestant acceptance of interest as one of the enabling factors for modern capitalism.
Exodus 22:31. And ye shall be holy men unto me: neither shall ye eat any flesh that is torn of beasts in the field; ye shall cast it to the dogs.
The Qur’an also forbids the eating of “road kill.” Animals must be butchered while alive. Kosher Jewish butchers and Islamic butchers have similar rules, which are sometimes presented as humane.
Exodus 23:10 And six years thou shalt sow thy land, and shalt gather in the fruits thereof: But the seventh year thou shalt let it rest and lie still; that the poor of thy people may eat: and what they leave the beasts of the field shall eat. In like manner thou shalt deal with thy vineyard, and with thy oliveyard.
Some scholars insist that this must have been an idealistic law of priests ignorant of the realities of farming life; but some Jews have been documented as actually observing it, especially in modern Israel. It’s a sort of “super-Sabbath” law, later extended to a celebration of the 50th year as a “Jubilee” an extra Sabbath year at the end of 49 (7 X 7) years. The Catholic tradition of a twenty-fifth year Jubilee is a Papal invention which dates from 1300.
Genesis 23:19: Thou shalt not seethe a kid in his mother’s milk.
Puzzled rabbis “put a fence around” this mysterious law by prohibiting the mixture of any meat product with any dairy product. Orthodox Jews even keep separate kitchen utensils for cooking the two kinds of food. But archeologists have discovered in modern times that this is a recipe observed in a pagan ritual. The authors of the law were probably simply telling the Hebrews not to take part in this feast honoring other gods.
Exodus 25 includes extremely detailed descriptions of ritual implements, some of which are quite ornate: “33 Three bowls made like unto almonds, with a knop and a flower in one branch; and three bowls made like almonds in the other branch, with a knop and a flower: so in the six branches that come out of the candlestick. 34 And in the candlesticks shall be four bowls made like unto almonds, with their knops and their flowers. 35 And there shall be a knop under two branches of the same, and a knop under two branches of the same, and a knop under two branches of the same, according to the six branches that proceed out of the candlestick. 36 Their knops and their branches shall be of the same: all it shall be one beaten work of pure gold. 37 And thou shalt make the seven lamps thereof: and they shall light the lamps thereof, that they may give light over against it.”
Descriptions like this bulk very large in the law, and probably date from after the building of the Temple under Solomon. The “Tabernacle” described in this passage is a sort of scale model of the Temple, perhaps written by Priests who could not image any early stage in Judaism at which the Temple did not in some form already exist.
Leviticus 1:3 If his offering be a burnt sacrifice of the herd, let him offer a male without blemish: he shall offer it of his own voluntary will at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation before the LORD. 4 And he shall put his hand upon the head of the burnt offering; and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him. 5 And he shall kill the bullock before the LORD: and the priests, Aaron’s sons, shall bring the blood, and sprinkle the blood round about upon the altar that is by the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. 6 And he shall flay the burnt offering, and cut it into his pieces. 7 And the sons of Aaron the priest shall put fire upon the altar, and lay the wood in order upon the fire: 8 And the priests, Aaron’s sons, shall lay the parts, the head, and the fat, in order upon the wood that is on the fire which is upon the altar:9 But his inwards and his legs shall he wash in water: and the priest shall burn all on the altar, to be a burnt sacrifice, an offering made by fire, of a sweet savour unto the LORD.”
The ancient Greeks also “sacrificed” animals by roasting them, with the celebrants (here, the priests) consuming them while the hides and bones, with some fat, were burned up for the gods.
Leviticus 11: 2 Speak unto the children of Israel, saying, These are the beasts which ye shall eat among all the beasts that are on the earth. 3 Whatsoever parteth the hoof, and is clovenfooted, and cheweth the cud, among the beasts, that shall ye eat. 4 Nevertheless these shall ye not eat of them that chew the cud, or of them that divide the hoof: as the camel, because he cheweth the cud, but divideth not the hoof; he is unclean unto you. 5 And the coney, because he cheweth the cud, but divideth not the hoof; he is unclean unto you. 6 And the hare, because he cheweth the cud, but divideth not the hoof; he is unclean unto you. 7 And the swine, though he divide the hoof, and be clovenfooted, yet he cheweth not the cud; he is unclean to you. 8 Of their flesh shall ye not eat, and their carcase shall ye not touch; they are unclean to you. 9 These shall ye eat of all that are in the waters: whatsoever hath fins and scales in the waters, in the seas, and in the rivers, them shall ye eat. 10 And all that have not fins and scales in the seas, and in the rivers, of all that move in the waters, and of any living thing which is in the waters, they shall be an abomination unto you: 11 They shall be even an abomination unto you; ye shall not eat of their flesh, but ye shall have their carcases in abomination. 12 Whatsoever hath no fins nor scales in the waters, that shall be an abomination unto you.
This is just the beginning of the huge body of dietary law. Notice that many meats other than pigs are forbidden, including all rabbits, shellfish and eels. Many peoples have sacred, forbidden foods, but no people has so strongly identified itself with such food taboos. Forbidden foods are “treif,” permitted foods are “kosher.” Rationalist Jews, beginning with Moses Maimonides in the 12th century CE, have offered medical explanations for these taboos, but they probably stem from a wide variety of sources, not all strictly rational.
Leviticus 12: 2 Speak unto the children of Israel, saying, If a woman have conceived seed, and born a man child: then she shall be unclean seven days; according to the days of the separation for her infirmity shall she be unclean. 3 And in the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. 4 And she shall then continue in the blood of her purifying three and thirty days; she shall touch no hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying be fulfilled. 5 But if she bear a maid child, then she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her separation: and she shall continue in the blood of her purifying threescore and six days.
Feminist critics point out that bearing a female child is considered more defiling than bearing a male one.
Leviticus 18:7 The nakedness of thy father, or the nakedness of thy mother, shalt thou not uncover: she is thy mother; thou shalt not uncover her nakedness. 8 The nakedness of thy father’s wife shalt thou not uncover: it is thy father’s nakedness.
The beginning of a long list of prohibited sexual relationships. This was greatly extended in the Middle Ages by the Catholic Church so that one theoretically could not marry even very distant relatives, or even people connected not by blood but by godparent relationships. Since most monarchs in Europe wound up being more closely related than religion technically allowed, Henry VIII was plausibly able to claim that his marriage to Catherine, who failed to produce an heir, was incestuous. The Pope disagreed, and that prompted the founding of the Anglican Church.
Leviticus 18:22 Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.
One of several prohibitions against male homosexuality. Lesbianism doesn’t seem to have been imagined as a possibility in many ancient cultures; it is not mentioned in the Torah.
Leviticus 19:9 And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corners of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleanings of thy harvest. 10 And thou shalt not glean thy vineyard, neither shalt thou gather every grape of thy vineyard; thou shalt leave them for the poor and stranger: I am the LORD your God.
This custom of allowing gleaning to the poor explains one of the incidents in the Book of Ruth. Modern Christians have used the term to label efforts to gather food for the poor. Charity toward the poor is a very strong tradition in Judaism, dating from the most ancient periods.
Leviticus 19:27 Ye shall not round the corners of your heads, neither shalt thou mar the corners of thy beard.
In other words, men shouldn’t shave or trim their hair. Some ultra-orthodox Jews still follow these fashions. Some pious Muslims also refuse to trim their beards. Sikhs are even more consistent in both regards.
Numbers 5:12 Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, If any man’s wife go aside, and commit a trespass against him, 13 And a man lie with her carnally, and it be hid from the eyes of her husband, and be kept close, and she be defiled, and there be no witness against her, neither she be taken with the manner; 14 And the spirit of jealousy come upon him, and he be jealous of his wife, and she be defiled: or if the spirit of jealousy come upon him, and he be jealous of his wife, and she be not defiled: 15 Then shall the man bring his wife unto the priest, and he shall bring her offering for her, the tenth part of an ephah of barley meal; he shall pour no oil upon it, nor put frankincense thereon; for it is an offering of jealousy, an offering of memorial, bringing iniquity to remembrance. 16 And the priest shall bring her near, and set her before the LORD: 17 And the priest shall take holy water in an earthen vessel; and of the dust that is in the floor of the tabernacle the priest shall take, and put it into the water: 18 And the priest shall set the woman before the LORD, and uncover the woman’s head, and put the offering of memorial in her hands, which is the jealousy offering: and the priest shall have in his hand the bitter water that causeth the curse: 19 And the priest shall charge her by an oath, and say unto the woman, If no man have lain with thee, and if thou hast not gone aside to uncleanness with another instead of thy husband, be thou free from this bitter water that causeth the curse: 20 But if thou hast gone aside to another instead of thy husband, and if thou be defiled, and some man have lain with thee beside thine husband: 21 Then the priest shall charge the woman with an oath of cursing, and the priest shall say unto the woman, The LORD make thee a curse and an oath among thy people, when the LORD doth make thy thigh to rot, and thy belly to swell; 22 And this water that causeth the curse shall go into thy bowels, to make thy belly to swell, and thy thigh to rot: And the woman shall say, Amen, amen. 23 And the priest shall write these curses in a book, and he shall blot them out with the bitter water: 24 And he shall cause the woman to drink the bitter water that causeth the curse: and the water that causeth the curse shall enter into her, and become bitter. 25 Then the priest shall take the jealousy offering out of the woman’s hand, and shall wave the offering before the LORD, and offer it upon the altar: 26 And the priest shall take an handful of the offering, even the memorial thereof, and burn it upon the altar, and afterward shall cause the woman to drink the water. 27 And when he hath made her to drink the water, then it shall come to pass, that, if she be defiled, and have done trespass against her husband, that the water that causeth the curse shall enter into her, and become bitter, and her belly shall swell, and her thigh shall rot: and the woman shall be a curse among her people. 28 And if the woman be not defiled, but be clean; then she shall be free, and shall conceive seed. 29 This is the law of jealousies, when a wife goeth aside to another instead of her husband, and is defiled.
In this interesting ritual, instead of casting the accused adulteress into the water as the Code of Hammurabi required, she is tested by drinking a ritual potion. If her belly swells and her thigh rots, she’s guilty and may be killed; but if these miraculous signs do not occur, the jealous husband has to accept her back.
Deuteronomy 7:1 When the LORD thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, and hath cast out many nations before thee, the Hittites, and the Girgashites, and the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than thou; 2 And when the LORD thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them, [and] utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them: 3 Neither shalt thou make marriages with them; thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son. 4 For they will turn away thy son from following me, that they may serve other gods: so will the anger of the LORD be kindled against you, and destroy thee suddenly. 5 But thus shall ye deal with them; ye shall destroy their altars, and break down their images, and cut down their groves, and burn their graven images with fire. 6 For thou [art] an holy people unto the LORD thy God: the LORD thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that [are] upon the face of the earth.
This is the first occurrence in the Bible of the law of “the Ban” (Hebrew: cherem) which calls for the complete and utter destruction of an enemy cursed by God. There are various instances of its application in 1 Samuel, for instance in the incident in which King Saul is cursed for having dared to spare King Agag. In this sort of warfare, no prisoners are to be taken and the goal is the utter annihilation of the enemy people: men, women and children, though that is not clearly spelled out until later, in Samuel. There is no evidence that the Hebrews ever successfully carried out this sort of genocide; yet the same spirit infuses later Christian crusading attitudes and some Muslim jihads, both of which seem to have drawn on the Biblical tradition. Of course, the Jews themselves were to become the target of a secular variety of cherem under the Nazis. The priests who wrote these laws were obsessed with ritual purity and the danger of intermarriage with unbelievers came before any notions of human rights. It is well to remember that other passages in the Torah speak much more kindly of proper treatment of enemies.
So did the Jews forgive all the Nazi Germans that killed off millions of their people? Would the Jewish people help their enemies (Nazis) then? Or is that an exception?
The passages urging fair treatment of enemies probably refer to the personal enemies of individuals, not to enemy nations bent on destroying the Jews. There are plenty of passages in the Bible indicating that Jews are free to defend themselves and destroy their enemies if they can. Sometimes Christians cite Jesus’ words “love your enemies” as being superior to Judaism, but in fact this is a rarely observed commandment, and it is not entirely clear what it means. My main point in pointing out these passages is that it is an unfair cartoon of Jewish belief to say that they are always urged to hate their enemies.
Deuteronomy 6:14 Ye shall not go after other gods, of the gods of the people which are round about you; 15(For the LORD thy God is a jealous God among you) lest the anger of the LORD thy God be kindled against thee, and destroy thee from off the face of the earth.
The law often speaks ferociously about the danger of worshipping false gods, and it is this insistence on absolute adherence to the worship of Yahweh which underlies the entire Deuteronomic history (1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings).
Deuteronomy 22:8 When thou buildest a new house, then thou shalt make a battlement for thy roof, that thou bring not blood upon thine house, if any man fall from thence.
The Torah contains pragmatic safety regulations, this one relevant when people spent a good deal of time on top of their flat-roofed houses.
Deuteronomy 22: 9 Thou shalt not sow thy vineyard with divers seeds: lest the fruit of thy seed which thou hast sown, and the fruit of thy vineyard, be defiled. 10 Thou shalt not plow with an ox and an ass together. 11 Thou shalt not wear a garment of divers sorts, [as] of woollen and linen together.
Several kinds of mixing of diverse things are considered unclean for ritual purposes.
Deuteronomy 22:23 If a damsel [that is] a virgin be betrothed unto an husband, and a man find her in the city, and lie with her; 24 Then ye shall bring them both out unto the gate of that city, and ye shall stone them with stones that they die; the damsel, because she cried not, [being] in the city; and the man, because he hath humbled his neighbour’s wife: so thou shalt put away evil from among you. 25 But if a man find a betrothed damsel in the field, and the man force her, and lie with her: then the man only that lay with her shall die: 26 But unto the damsel thou shalt do nothing; [there is] in the damsel no sin [worthy] of death: for as when a man riseth against his neighbour, and slayeth him, even so [is] this matter: 27 For he found her in the field, [and] the betrothed damsel cried, and [there was] none to save her. 28 If a man find a damsel [that is] a virgin, which is not betrothed, and lay hold on her, and lie with her, and they be found; 29 Then the man that lay with her shall give unto the damsel’s father fifty [shekels] of silver, and she shall be his wife; because he hath humbled her, he may not put her away all his days.
It is assumed that any woman being raped in the crowded town can be heard screaming for help; if no such scream was heard, then it will be assumed that the woman voluntarily had illicit sex and deserves to be stoned to death. Out in the country, however, she is given the benefit of the doubt. Note the rapist/seducer of a virgin pays damages to the woman’s father and has to marry her. His daughter’s virtue is considered a proud posession of the father, for which he should be compensated. If she had not lost her virginity, she would have been able to make a better marriage.
Deuteronomy 25:5 If brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and have no child, the wife of the dead shall not marry without unto a stranger: her husband’s brother shall go in unto her, and take her to him to wife, and perform the duty of an husband’s brother unto her. 6 And it shall be, [that] the firstborn which she beareth shall succeed in the name of his brother [which is] dead, that his name be not put out of Israel. 7 And if the man like not to take his brother’s wife, then let his brother’s wife go up to the gate unto the elders, and say, My husband’s brother refuseth to raise up unto his brother a name in Israel, he will not perform the duty of my husband’s brother. 8 Then the elders of his city shall call him, and speak unto him: and [if] he stand [to it], and say, I like not to take her; 9 Then shall his brother’s wife come unto him in the presence of the elders, and loose his shoe from off his foot, and spit in his face, and shall answer and say, So shall it be done unto that man that will not build up his brother’s house. 10 And his name shall be called in Israel, The house of him that hath his shoe loosed.
This passage explains the story of Onan in Genesis 38, who refused to beget children on his dead brother’s wife but enjoyed having sex with her by using a primitive form of birth control. This pattern is known as Levirate marriage, and was sometimes resisted because a man had to beget and support children that were not legally counted as his, but as his dead brother’s. Although marrying one’s father’s widow is strictly forbidden, marrying one’s brother’s widow is mandatory. This pattern is followed in various other cultures, including among some Nigerian Ibos, as described in Buchi Emecheta’s 1979 novel, The Joys of Motherhood.