The Jewish Bible tells the story of a single family that becomes a nation. The three patriarchs of Judaism, the religious tradition that derives from the Tanakh or Old Testament, are Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
The story begins when God creates order out of chaos in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” The point of the story however, is not to tell us scientifically how the world came into existence, but to explain how the children of Israel came into being, and how they acquired their laws, Temple and ancestral land. It begins with Adam and Eve, then Seth their son, then Noah his direct descendent who survives a purging flood. Abraham is a descendant of Noah’s son, Shem (from which we get the word Semite). It is Abraham who receives the famous order from the God of Genesis to leave his ancestral home and his family to settle in a new land, unknown to him. God makes a covenant with Abraham, promising him that his descendants would be too numerous to count and that they would receive the Land of Canaan as a permanent inheritance. This Abrahamic covenant which grants land to a special family, is passed down from father to son until one generation, sometime in the future would actually physically claim the inheritance.
Although Abraham has two sons, only one inherits, Isaac. In turn Isaac has two sons, Jacob and Esau; Jacob inherits and Esau does not. Jacob, whose name is changed to Israel in the Bible story, then has 12 sons. These 12 sons and their descendants are collectively known as the children of Israel, or Israelites and this nation-family will also collectively claim the promised inheritance.
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all live in the land of Canaan as nomads among the settled nations that already are living there. During a famine in the land, the family is forced to go to Egypt to find food. There they stay for 400 years (give or take) before a change in political leadership in Egypt makes them into the Pharaoh ’s slaves. Moses is chosen by God to deliver the Israelites from their bondage. To prepare for the hasty departure, the Israelites are told to mark their doorposts with the blood of a young lamb and to eat the meat as a final meal in Egypt. The angel of death makes its way through Egypt, killing the first born of everything in the land but passes over the doors marked with the blood. This event is commemorated annually by Jews around the world during the Passover season when families congregate to eat a formal meal and retell the story of the deliverance. Once the Israelites are free of the Egyptians, they begin wandering through the Sinai desert on the way to the Promised Land. God miraculously provides food and water for them while they live in temporary shelters along the way. The festival of Sukkot (huts) is another Biblically mandated holiday that commemorates this period when the Jews were homeless.
Shortly after their departure, Moses is called up by God to receive a set of laws and instructions for the newly redeemed slaves. The Torah or teaching becomes the cornerstone of Israelite and then Jewish corporate identity. The laws are at once ethical, moral, ritual and pragmatic. Once a year the high priest of the Israelites would prepare himself to offer a solemn sacrifice on behalf of the whole community and personally for himself. This holy day of atonement, or ‘covering’ was called Yom Kippur. The people marked their observance by a 24 hour fast during which they did their soul searching and recommitted themselves to the covenant. The Torah’s narration of these events ends with the Israelites camped on the border of the promised Land. Moses dies and a young Joshua takes his place, ready to lead the tribes into the new land so they can claim their tribal allotments.
The books in the second section of the Jewish bible tell the story of the tribal confederation and their wars with the land ’s occupants and the powerful ancient empires who bordered them on three sides.
Eventually the Israelites do come to live in the land but they never quite succeed in rousting out all the prior inhabitants. Dissatisfied with being a tribal confederation, the Israelites wish to become a kingdom.
The people choose Saul, who is eventually killed in battle by the Philistines. David, a young shepherd boy, is anointed by the prophet Samuel to replace Saul. David is perhaps the most famous of all Israel ’s kings; he is responsible for conquering Jerusalem and making it his royal and religious capital. God, through his prophet, promises that the Davidic line would always be the royal line. David’s son Solomon inherits the kingdom and builds the royal palace and a beautiful temple dedicated to the worship of the God of Israel. The Kingdom of Israel survives intact until the accession of Solomon’s son, Rehoboam.
Rehoboam institutes oppressive measures on his subjects. It is so onerous that the ten northern tribes split off and form their own political state with its own cultic center. The two southern tribes remain loyal to the Davidic dynasty and excoriate the seccessionists for what they see as “idolatry” and “harlotry”. In historical terms, this seems to mean that the northern Kingdom of Israel acted like its neighboring empires, making political and economic alliances, and providing shrines to foreign gods.
All this is to no avail, and it seems the south was right to warn them through the classical prophets about their horrific future. In 721 BCE the Assyrians decimated the North, and captured, enslaved and dispersed all the Israelites who lived there. The myth of the “lost 10 tribes” is born. Despite the South’s loyalties, it too falls to a foreign power. In 586 BCE Babylonia conquers the southern Kingdom known as Judah and exiles its inhabitants to Babylon. The sorrowful books of Jeremiah and Lamentations express the exiles’ desire to return to their home and their royal capital.
70 years after they are taken captive, Persia conquers Babylonia and King Cyrus allows the Jews and other captive peoples to return back to their ancestral homes, rebuild their cities and temples, and reinstate their own ancestral laws and religious observances. The territory of the former united Kingdom of Israel is now reduced in size to a portion of what the south occupied. The land is now a Persian satrapy or province and is renamed Yehud, reflecting the tribal identity of the majority of exiles. Once back in their land, the remnant that returned restored the laws of the land, and recommitted themselves to keeping the terms of the Torah ’s covenant.
Peace did not last too long. Alexander the Great stormed across the East like a flash of lightening in the early 4 th century BCE.
When he died suddenly at the age of 32, his generals divided up his kingdom. The Yehud was now a Syrian province and subjected to Hellenization, or the imposition of Greek culture and religion. In the province of Judea, Jews who sympathized with the desire to emulate the Greeks were opposed by the traditionalists who wanted to remain identified by their own Semitic culture, religion and customs. Eventually a rebellion gave the victory to the traditionalists when the Hasmonean family (the Maccabees) succeeded in rousting Syrian troops from their land. They purified and rededicated the Temple, which had been given over to pagan sacrifices; an event that is commemorated in the non-Biblical holiday of Hanukkah.
The Hasmoneans couldn ’t retain power due to all their infighting. At the request of one of the parties, the Romans came to help keep the peace. In 64 BCE Pompey entered Jerusalem and established a Roman presence that would last for centuries. Judea (the Latin version of Yehud) was now a backwater Roman province with a garrison or so of soldiers charged with keeping things quiet. For the next 70-80 years, Jews struggled against Roman over-taxation and oppression. Many read the ancient prophets and were convinced that God would soon send another special descendant of David’s to regain the Kingdom for Israel and to throw out the foreigners. Not a few Messiahs, or anointed ones, appeared on the landscape between the death of Herod and the beginning of the Great War between the Jewish nationalists and the Romans in 66 CE. This is the period of the great first century sectarian groups so famous from the New Testament: the Sadducees, aristocrats in charge of the Temple; Essenes, who found refuge in asceticism and retreat to the Dead Sea (so it is believed), the Zealots who could easily be called terrorists in today ’s climate; and the Pharisees, the proponents of Jewish Oral Torah and the predecessors of the up and coming rabbinical schools.
Between 66 and 70 CE the Romans crushed the Jewish rebellion, destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and plundered its wealth. Jews were enslaved and deported, but this was a political rather than religious war. The Romans detested rebellion and unrest and greatly valued peace, no matter how it had to be achieved.
Israel ’s priests were out of a job, the Essenes and the Zealots were lost to history. The Pharisees also disappear from view, but the Rabbis seem to be their closest successors in interest. One rabbi, the famous Akiva, proclaimed Simon Bar Kochba as a new messiah some 50 years after the destruction of the Temple. For a short time Bar Kochba appeared to be that – he ousted the Romans and reclaimed Jerusalem for the Jews, even minting coins in commemoration of their new independence. But in 135 the Romans utterly destroyed the new rule and Jerusalem was declared off limits to Jews. The temple site was rebuilt with a pagan Temple and the city was renamed Aeolia Capitolina.
The rabbis, however, under Yochanan ben Zakkai, were allowed to move to a new location away from Jerusalem to establish their schools of Torah learning. Judaism lost its sacrificial center but gained a scholarly alternative. Texts rather than physical sacrifices would now form the sacred center of Jewish life. The rabbis produced the Mishnah, a collection of rabbinic sayings, arguments and legal rulings that are the central text around which all subsequent Jewish scriptures are formed.
Judges to Kings
Tribal confederation ruled by heads of
Judges when needed
We want a king like other nations
The Kingdom of Israel
Saul is the first king - a poor choice
David, the unlikely king captures
Jerusalem and makes it the capital
Solomon - Wise and rich. He builds a
Temple for YHWH where his presence
can dwell amid His people.
Rehoboam oppresses the people and the
Northern tribes (10) unite and act like
other nations. “Idolatry” “Harlotry”
Southern tribes (2) remain loyal to
David’s royal line.
Disaster and Exile
Assyria decimates the Northern
Kingdom in 721 BCE - tribes are lost to
history (myth of the “10 lost tribes”)
Babylonia conquers the southern
Kingdom of Judah and takes the elite to
Babylon in 586 BCE
Laments and Prophesy
Return from Exile
Persia conquers Babylonia and
authorizes Israel’s return to the land
The Land of Israel is now called the
The Torah is formalized and the remnant
that returns reaffirms the terms of the
The Greek Period
Alexander defeats Persia and brings
Greek culture to the East ca. 332 BCE
Hellenists and Traditionalists battle for
control of Jewish life in Judea (Yehud)
The Hasmoneans (Maccabees) defy the
Greeks and rededicate the Temple to
YHVH - commemorated in Hanukkah.
The Roman Period
in 64 BCE the feuding Hasmoneans
invite Rome in to keep the peace
Pompey comes and the Romans take
control of Judea.
Civil unrest is spurred by Roman
oppression and interference with the
Priesthood and Temple
The End of the Second Temple
In 70 CE the Romans destroy Jerusalem
and sack the Temple.
In 135 CE, Bar Kochba’s short-lived
kingdom is utterly crushed by Rome
Israel’s sages, the Rabbis regroup at
The rabbis survive
Essenes, Sadducees, Zealots and
Pharisees disappear from the stage.
Yochanan ben Zakkai strikes a bargain
with the Romans to establish an
academy in Yavneh
The Oral Torah is collected and the
Mishnah is codified (ca. 200 CE).
The Talmud consists of the Mishnah at
the core and gemara or commentary and
analysis arranged around it.
Two talmuds - one from Jerusalem, one
The most authoritative and extensive is
the Bavli, or Babylonian talmud
Jews under Islam
Jews continue to study
and practice under
Dhimmis - Muslims
People of the Book but
their status was still
that of second-class
1135-1204 Spain, Morocco, Israel, Egypt
the RAMBAM (an acronym for Rabbi
Moses ben Maimon, a physician and
Mishneh Torah, a commentary that
includes the 13 Articles Jewish faith he
1534-1572, Spanish Kabablist
Lurianic Kabbalah is a form of Jewish
God is known as En Soph (the Eternal)
The world for kabbalists is fallen and
must be repaired, a process known as
Jews under Christianity
Jews suffered greatly under
the Inquisitorial mentality
of the Church’s leaders.
In 1492 Jews were expelled
from Spain when they
refused to convert. Crypto-
Some Jews fled to the
Edict of Expulsion, 1492, Ferdinand & Isabella of Spain
In America Jews find a
safe haven, freedom of
with Protestantism and
Catholicism - the three
The Modern Age
Reform Judaism - the Liberal arm
Orthodox Judaism - the Traditionalists
Conservative Judaism - The midpoint
Hasidic Judaism - Pious and Joyous
Zionism - Theodore Herzl
The Nazis “final solution” to the
“Jewish Problem” leads to
genocide of unimaginable
proportions. 1/3 of Europe’s Jews -
6 million men, women and children
- perish during WWII.
Enduring Legacy of Judaism
Torah, Talmud, Monotheism, Mitzvot
The Biblical calendar: Rosh HaShanah,
Days of Awe, Yom Kippur, Sukkot,
Passover, Shavuot; non-Biblical
holidays: Purim, Hanukkah
Kashrut, Circumcision, Shabbat
The State of Israel - a return to the Land