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Origins of Judaism

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Duraeuropa-1-

Scenes from the Book of Esther decorate the Dura-Europos synagogue dating from 244 CE

The origins of Judaism are split into two views - the "traditional" view and the "critical" view. The traditional view is that at its core, the Tanakh is an account of the Israelites' relationship with God from their earliest history until the building of the Second Temple (c. 535 BCE). Critical scholars reject the claim that sacred texts, including the Hebrew Bible were dictated by God; some reject the claim that they were divinely inspired. Instead, they see these texts as authored by humans and meaningful in specific historical and cultural contexts.

Traditional viewEdit

The traditional view is that at its core, the Tanakh is an account of the Israelites' relationship with God from their earliest history until the building of the Second Temple (c. 535 BCE). This relationship is often a contentious one, as the Israelites struggle with their faith in God and attraction to other gods. Among the larger-than-life figures we meet in the Bible are the Patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who wrestled with their beliefs —- and Moses, who led the Israelites out of Egypt.

Abraham, hailed as the first Hebrew and the father of the Jewish people, rejected the idolatry that he saw around him and embraced monotheism. As a reward for this act of faith in one God, he was promised many offspring: "Look now toward heaven and count the stars/So shall be your progeny." (Genesis 15:5) Abraham's first child was Ishmael and his second son was Isaac, whom God said would continue Abraham's work and inherit the Land of Israel (then called Canaan), after having been exiled and redeemed. God sent the patriarch Jacob and his children to Egypt, where after many generations they became enslaved. God later commanded Moses to redeem the Israelites from slavery, leading to the Exodus from Egypt. The Israelites gathered at Mount Sinai in 1313 BCE (Jewish Year 2448) and received the Torah - the five books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These books, together with Nevi'im and Ketuvim are known as Torah Shebikhtav: literally the "Written Torah", as opposed to the Oral Torah, which refers to the Mishna and the Talmud. Eventually, God led them to the land of Israel.

God designated the descendants of Aaron, Moses' brother, to be a priestly class within the Israelite community. They first officiated in the tabernacle (a portable house of worship), and later their descendants were in charge of worship in the Temple in Jerusalem.

Once the Israelites had settled in the land of Israel, the tabernacle was planted in the city of Shiloh for over 300 years during which time God provided great men, and occasionally women, to rally the nation against attacking enemies, some of which were sent by God as a punishment for the sins of the people. This is described in the Book of Joshua and the Book of Judges. As time went on, the spiritual level of the nation declined to the point that God allowed the Philistines to capture the tabernacle in Shiloh.

The people of Israel then told Samuel the prophet that they had reached the point where they needed to be governed by a permanent king, as were other nations, as described in the Books of Samuel. Samuel grudgingly acceded to this request and appointed Saul, a great but very humble man, to be their King. When the people pressured Saul into going against a command conveyed to him by Samuel, God told Samuel to appoint David in his stead.

Once King David was established, he told the prophet Nathan that he would like to build a permanent temple, and as a reward for his actions, God promised David that he would allow his son to build the temple and the throne would never depart from his children (David himself was not allowed to build the temple because he had been involved in many wars, making it inappropriate for him to build a temple representing peace). As a result, it was David's son Solomon who built the first permanent temple according to God's will, in Jerusalem, as described in the Books of Kings.

Western wall jerusalem night

The Western Wall in Jerusalem is a remnant of the wall encircling the Second Temple. The Temple Mount is the holiest site in Judaism.

Rabbinic tradition holds that the details and interpretation of the law, which are called the Oral Torah or oral law, were originally an unwritten tradition based upon what God told Moses on Mount Sinai. However, as the persecutions of the Jews increased and the details were in danger of being forgotten, these oral laws were recorded by Rabbi Judah haNasi (Judah the Prince) in the Mishnah, redacted circa 200 CE. The Talmud was a compilation of both the Mishnah and the Gemara, rabbinic commentaries redacted over the next three centuries. The Gemara originated in two major centers of Jewish scholarship, Palestine and Babylonia. Correspondingly, two bodies of analysis developed, and two works of Talmud were created. The older compilation is called the Jerusalem Talmud. It was compiled sometime during the fourth century in Israel. The Babylonian Talmud was compiled from discussions in the houses of study by the scholars Ravina I, Ravina II, and Rav Ashi by 500 C.E., although it continued to be edited later.

Critical viewEdit

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Critical scholars (who may or may not be observant Jews), reject the claim that sacred texts, including the Hebrew Bible were dictated by God; some reject the claim that they were divinely inspired. Instead, they see these texts as authored by humans and meaningful in specific historical and cultural contexts. Many of these scholars accept the general principles of the documentary hypothesis and suggest that the Torah consists of a variety of inconsistent texts edited together in a way that calls attention to divergent accounts.[1][2][3]

Torah and jad

A Torah scroll.

These scholars have various theories concerning the origins of the Israelites and Israelite religion. Most agree that the people who formed the nation of Israel during the First Temple era had origins in Mesopotamia and in Egypt, although some question whether any or all of their ancestors had been slaves in Egypt. Many suggest that during the First Temple period, the people of Israel were henotheists, that is, they believed that each nation had its own god, but that their god was superior to other gods.[4][5] Some suggest that strict monotheism developed during the Babylonian Exile, perhaps in reaction to Zoroastrian dualism.[6]

In this view, it was only by the Hellenic period that most Jews came to believe that their god was the only god (and thus, the god of everyone), and that the record of his revelation (the Torah) contained within it universal truths. This attitude reflected a growing Gentile interest in Judaism (some Greeks and Romans considered the Jews a most "philosophical" people because of their belief in a god that cannot be represented visually), and growing Jewish interest in Greek philosophy, which sought to establish universal truths, thus leading - potentially - to the idea of monotheism, at least in the sense that "all gods are one". It was also at this time that the notion of a clearly bounded Jewish nation identical with the Jewish religion formed.[7] According to one scholar, the clash between the early Christians and Pharisees that ultimately led to the birth of the Christian religion and Rabbinic Judaism reflected the struggle by Jews to reconcile their claims to national particularism and theological universalism.[8]

According to Prof. Ze'ev Herzog of Tel Aviv University, monotheism, as a state religion, is probably "an innovation of the period of the Kingdom of Judea, following the destruction of the Kingdom of Israel." Herzog states that "The question about the date at which monotheism was adopted by the kingdoms of Israel and Judea arose with the discovery of inscriptions in ancient Hebrew that mention a pair of gods: Jehovah and his Asherah. At two sites, Kuntiliet Ajrud in the southwestern part of the Negev hill region, and at Khirbet el-Kom in the Judea piedmont, Hebrew inscriptions have been found that mention "Jehovah and his Asherah", "Jehovah Shomron and his Asherah, "Jehovah Teman and his Asherah". The authors were familiar with a pair of gods, Jehovah and his consort Asherah, and send blessings in the couple's name."[9]

Canaanite influenceEdit

The origins of Yahweh himself may be rooted in earlier Canaanite religion, which was centered on a pantheon of gods much like the Greek pantheon. Ba’al is the most recognized of this pantheon, mentioned over sixty times in the Bible.[10] Ba’al was the storm-god and the god of fertility to whom worship is repeatedly forbidden in the Tanakh.[11] In a society focused on survival, fertility represented the ultimate good. He was not, however, the head of the pantheon. That title belonged to El, the Compassionate. According to a theory originally posited by Mendenhall, a group of oppressed and self-marginalized people, the ‘apiru (a term for people who stood outside the established order, also possibly the origin of the word Hebrew) began to worship El as their primary deity.

The worship of the god known as Yahweh, not originally a Canaanite god, was probably developed in south of the Levantine region, in Midian[12] and brought to the region of the Levant by a group of nomads from the south (slaves from Egypt, according to biblical tradition). The foreign god Yahweh is believed to have become amalgamated with the native god El and taken on many of his characteristics: an aged god; a wise god; even the creator god.[13] As further evidence for the amalgamation, the Tanakh uses the word “El” for God. Notably, the Priestly source uses the term “El-Shaddai” for God. El-Shaddai most likely means “El, the mountain one,” in reference to El’s terrestrial dwelling.[14]

Israel as a new, established ethnic group is generally thought to have consolidated in the twelfth century BCE,[15] although some archaeologists, notably Israel Finkelstein, reject the claim that Israel was a coalition of oppressed peoples, arguing that the emergence of the Jewish people as a distinct ethnos did not occur until the ninth or eighth century BCE.[16]

Eventually, Judaism dropped all associations with other gods and goddesses of the Canaanite pantheon and become monotheistic. When exactly this occurred, however, is also debated. Plausible cases have been made for the continued worship, or veneration, of Asherah by the Israelites, as Yahweh’s consort, well after the amalgamation of Yahweh and El and the official orthodoxy of that preached Yahweh-alone. Asherah, El’s consort in the Canaanite pantheon, is mentioned over forty times in the Tanakh,[17] usually within the context of a condemnation of the worship of her or the use of her cult symbol, believed to be that of a stylized tree.[18] Not quite a graven image, it is believed to have been generally-tolerated (amongst the people if not the official orthodoxy) as a common tool of worship among Israelite women.[19]

Inscriptions from Kuntillet‘Ajurd and Khirbet el-Qom refer to “Yahweh and his Asherah”.[20] It is debated whether the inscriptions refer to Asherah the goddess or “the Asherah,” a symbol of Asherah’s cult. In either case, Yahweh is undoubtedly associated with Asherah. Just as Yahweh took up many traits of El’s; it is perceived as likely that he also took up El’s consort.

A likely influence on the final purge of Asherah and all Canaanite gods from Israelite religion was Josiah’s reformation, believed to have taken place in 621 BCE.[21]

ReferencesEdit

  1. Yehezkal Kauffman, The Religion of Israel
  2. Robert Alter The Art of Biblical Poetry
  3. E. A. Speiser Genesis (The Anchor Bible)
  4. John Bright A History of Israel
  5. Martin Noth The History of Israel
  6. Ephraim Urbach The Sages
  7. Shaye Cohen The beginnings of Jewishness
  8. Daniel Boyarin A Radical Jew
  9. mideastfacts.org - Deconstructing the walls of Jericho
  10. John Day Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan, page 68
  11. John Day Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan, page 70
  12. John Day Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan, page 15
  13. John Day Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan, pages 17 - 20
  14. John Day Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan, page 32
  15. J.P.M. Walsh The Mighty From Their Thrones, page 30
  16. Finkelstein 1996: 209
  17. John Day Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan, page 42
  18. John Day Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan, page 57
  19. William G. Dever Did God Have a Wife?, pages 209 - 251
  20. John Day Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan, page 49
  21. John Day Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan, page 229

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