PEOPLE OFTEN CLAIM that the history of the Jews dates back 4,000 years. Actually, it is closer to 3,000 years, but that’s still a long time, in human terms.
Marx Red SeaCertainly, few non-fundamentalists take the Adam and Eve or Noah stories literally, but many people do insist, on no firmer historical basis, that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were real people. In fact, there is virtually no established historical basis for the entire Torah — consisting of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy — nor for at least the two books of the Bible that follow, Joshua and Judges.
For all those who need a refresher on the difference between the Torah and the Jewish Bible (or “Old Testament”): The Torah is the first five books named above, followed by the Prophetic books, followed by the Writings. “T” for Torah, “N” for Nevi’im (Hebrew for Prophets) and “K” for Ketuvim, (Hebrew for Writings) form an acronym that is pronounced “Tanakh.” Tanakh is the Hebrew term for the Jewish Bible or Jewish Scriptures.
For some strange reason, Joshua, Judges, Samuel I and II, and Kings I and II are considered part of the Prophets, even though they are completely different in content and tone from the classic prophetic books like Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Isaiah, etc., in which individuals with a direct line to God condemn the people for their sins, predict ruin if they do not repent, and promise a glorious future if they do.
So let’s be clear. Real Jewish history begins with King David. But did David rise from a shepherd boy to a king? Did he slay Goliath? Did he send Uriah the Hittite off to die into battle so he could take Uriah’s wife Bathsheba for his consort? Did he have a son Absalom who rebelled against David and was killed by one of the king’s generals when found hanging from the branches of a tree by his hair? Your guess is as good as mine.
BUT WE ARE getting ahead of ourselves. The first evidence for the existence of a Semitic people known as Israel is the Mernepetah Stele, a victory monument from 1208 BCE celebrating the Egyptian conquest of Canaan with the phrase, “Israel has been shorn… Its seed no longer exists.” Of course, the people of Israel were not destroyed, but neither is there any evidence that they emerged from Egyptian slavery to conquer Canaan.
Jews should actually be thrilled that the Exodus story is fictional, because the plagues that were allegedly inflicted on the Egyptians were horrific — up to and including the death of every first born Egyptian son — and the alleged Israelite conquest of Canaan as depicted in the Book of Joshua was genocidal! Why would the victims of a 20th century genocide and other horrible massacres want to think of themselves as beneficiaries of an ancient genocide? Happily, the latest scholarship suggests that the Israelites were in fact dissident or disenfranchised Canaanites who, far from wanting to invade Canaan, wanted to get out!
These Canaanites were among the poorer segments of society who felt oppressed living in Canaanite city states ruled by wealthy elites. They voted with their feet, migrating eastward to the hill country to establish more egalitarian communities based on small-scale farming and livestock. They were apparently joined by desert nomads and small group of Canaanites who were, perhaps, once slaves in Egypt. No one really knows.
In passing through Midian, these former slaves are thought to have adopted the Midian God and created a story of their deliverance from Egyptian slavery. This God, considered to be a God of freedom, was then adopted by the entire Canaanite community, both the original community and the newer arrivals, along with the story of divine deliverance from Egyptian slavery. A new people emerged called Israelites, with a God called Yahweh, who, they claimed, brought the entire people out of Egypt into Canaan. Though not historically accurate, it is a compelling story nonetheless.
AS THE ESTABLISHED Canaanite city states declined, weakened by internal decay and civil strife, the Israelites took control of the entire territory — not by conquest, but gradually. There is no evidence that Joshua fought the battle of Jericho or that the walls tumbled down. Rather, to proclaim their superiority over their old adversaries, Biblical writers claimed that the Israelites invaded, conquered and destroyed Canaan through the power of a God who promised the land to them.
Had there been an Exodus, it would have occurred in the mid-1200s BCE — but the first written reference to the Exodus story is dated around 1000 BCE, and relates to the drowning of Pharoah’s army in the Red Sea. Such an occurrence would be impossible, of course: Could high tides engulf an entire army? Would Pharoah’s generals not know the time of high tide in their own country? Other aspects of the Exodus story are similarly unbelievable. Could Moses have repeatedly marched in and out of Pharoah’s palace making demands without being arrested or executed on the spot? Would a mother wanting to save her infant’s life place him in a basket and send him downstream? Would a princess be bathing in the Nile, which was undoubtedly used for sewage? Could anyone get lost for forty years in the Sinai desert, even if led by men who refused to ask for directions? There is simply no written or archaeological record of any mass migration through the Sinai desert to Israel. Perhaps a small migration occurred, but it is impossible to know for certain.
Why did I omit the Biblical patriarchs and matriarchs, and Joseph and his brothers? Because they are all legendary figures — unless you believe that Sarah had a child in her nineties or that Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt when she turned around to look at what God had done to Sodom and Gomorrah. Furthermore, the patriarchs’ conduct is often highly objectionable. For example, in Genesis 34, a non-Jewish tribal leader rapes Dinah, the only sister of the twelve sons of Jacob. The tribal leader is willing to make amends by taking her as his wife (not Dinah’s idea, you can bet). The brothers agree, but only on the condition that these non-Jews circumcise themselves first. They do, but while they are recovering from the painful surgery, Levi and Simeon swoop down and massacre them, while their brothers join in looting their city and seizing their women and children. Before Jacob dies, he curses Levi and Simeon for their conduct, but Levi’s descendants are nevertheless granted the exclusive right to serve as priests. Simeon’s descendants are destined to be few in number. The other brothers suffer no consequences. Very edifying story, don’t you think? But don’t worry — it never happened.
NOW, BACK TO DAVID. Another victory monument found at the Tel Dan Stele in northern Israel celebrates a victory by the King of Damascus over the house of David. It is dated between 850 and 800 BCE. Archaeologists and historians have inferred from this that a dynasty founded by a King David existed since around 1000 CE. It was likely not a large kingdom, as depicted in the two Books of Samuel, but a modest kingdom with little influence in the region. The fact that the two Books of Samuel were not written until hundreds of years later makes it impossible to verify any of their details.
It is also impossible to verify when Jerusalem was actually founded, but it may have existed in David’s time as a small town. When the First Temple was built is still in dispute, because its ruins have never been found. Construction may have been begun by David’s son Solomon, as stated in the Bible, or by Israelite Kings Omri and Ahab, in the second half of the 9th century CE (885-850). These kings receive very bad press in the Bible because they worshipped pagan gods. If they did not build the Temple, they likely expanded it to impressive proportions. By contrast, David and Solomon’s glorification as great and powerful kings was the product of later propaganda meant to enhance the prestige of their successors.
The stories told in seven books of the Bible that follow the Torah — Joshua, Judges, the two books of Samuel and the two books of Kings — which relate to the conquest of Canaan, the creation of the first Jewish kingdom, and the emergence and reign of the Davidic dynasty, are full of violence, intrigue, and betrayals. In the words of Matt Nevisksy, who reviewed of a new translation of these books of the Bible in Jerusalem Report, “the portrait of the Hebrews is one of ‘collective villainy.’” Once again, we should be pleased that most of it cannot be historically verified.
It is also unclear whether there was ever a united Kingdom of Israel that split after Solomon’s death into a northern Kingdom of Israel and a southern Kingdom of Judah. We do know, however, that the northern kingdom was larger in area and population, more highly developed and more cosmopolitan than its southern neighbor — yet it was the southern Kingdom that survived when the Assyrian Empire conquered Israel in 722 BCE. By the time of the reign of the Judean king Josiah (640-610 BCE), we can say that Jewish history has begun in earnest, because from that time onward we have multiple sources and solid archaeological evidence to go on. Josiah began the effort to purge Judaism of all pagan influences in favor of strict worship of Yahweh, centralized in the Jerusalem Temple. The last book of the Torah, Deuteronomy, was written in his reign. It was the most monotheistic book of the Torah and written by the same author or authors who wrote the following six books: Joshua, Judges, Samuel I and II, and Kings I and II. This makes Josiah easily the most influential king in the Davidic dynasty, rivaled only by King Herod under Roman rule.
SOON AFTER JOSIAH’S REIGN, in 586 BCE, the Babylonian Empire conquered Judah, destroying the First Temple and carrying the Judean leadership into exile. Ironically, it is in Babylonian Exile that the Judaism’s practices and beliefs took shape: the Sabbath as a day of rest, the regimen of daily prayer, the rite of circumcision, the concept of the messiah, belief in life after death, etc. And it was in Babylon that the Torah was edited, enshrining the authority of the priesthood and establishing universal monotheism as the exclusive Jewish belief system. Before then, monotheism was hotly contested by rival pagan religions and was tribal in nature. In other words, until the Babylonian Exile, Yahweh was considered the exclusive Jewish God, not the universal God.
In 539 BCE, the Persians gave the Judeans permission to return to Judah, but it was not for another twenty years or so that permission was granted to rebuild the Temple. With the return from Babylon of a cadre of very organized and disciplined elite, supported by the teachings of the prophet Jeremiah, Yahweh became the only God — the universal God — and all others were condemned as mere idols.
Among those who returned from exile was a fanatical priest named Ezra, who arrived around 458 BCE with about five hundred other priests. They considered the Jews who were never exiled and remained in Judah, or moved south from what used to be the kingdom of Israel (known as Samaritans), to be semi-pagans and undesirables. Backed by the authority of the Persian-appointed Jewish governor, Nehemiah, Ezra refused to allow the Samaritans to join in the rebuilding of the Temple and forced Jewish men to divorce their Samaritan wives and send them away along with their children. While still in Babylon, he edited the final version of the Torah, and back in Judah he declared the Torah to be the law of the land and ordered that it be read to the multitudes on a weekly basis. To gain popular support, he also enacted a number of social reforms to aid the poor.
Ezra completed, with a vengeance, the centralization process begun by King Josiah. Jews, however, were no longer living in their own kingdom, but were now under the authority of a foreign empire that granted autonomy to its subject people. The books that bears Ezra’s and Nehemiah’s names were written soon after the events they describe and are considered highly accurate.
There are a few books of the Bible that post-date Ezra and Nehemiah, most notably the Book of Daniel and the Book of Ecclesiastes, but they do not pretend to be historical narratives. But if you want to learn about the ideas of Hellenistic Jews, Ecclesiastes is a good source. Unlike the rest of the Bible it has a skeptical and pessimistic — almost existentialist — tone.
THE TERMS “JEW” AND “JEWISH” came into use at about this time, as we became a distinct group with a strong ethno-religious identity. Some Jews remained in Babylonia and some had already migrated to Egypt and what is now Libya, which marks the beginning of the Diaspora and the emergence of Jews as an international people. The Bible, it is said, became our “portable homeland.”
You may have noticed that I left out the Maccabees, who created the Hasmonean dynasty. That is because their story is post-Biblical, taking place in the 2nd century BCE. It was recorded in the First Book of Maccabees, which was not respected or even read by most Jews because the rabbis detested the Hasmoneans for repudiating certain Jewish traditions and turning into tyrants. There were actually four such books, preserved not by Jews, but by Catholics in their version of the Bible known as the Vulgate. Only the first is considered a reliable, if partisan account of the Hasmonean uprising and victory.
The Bible does have some edifying books that I believe secular humanistic Jews can appreciate — but they are not historical. These include Ruth, Song of Songs, Jonah, Job, and Ecclesiastes.
Otherwise, George and Ira Gershwin got it right (in Porgy and Bess): “The things that you’re liable to read in the Bible ain’t necessarily so.”
Bennett Muraskin is a contributing writer to Jewish Currents magazine and the author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman, and Humanistic Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.
The major sources used for the article were a 2008 PBS special on Biblical history called “The Bible’s Buried Secrets”; A View from Nebo: How Biblical Archeology is Re-Writing the Bible and Reshaping the Middle East by Amy Dockser Marcus; The Bible Unearthed: Archeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts by Israel Finkelstein; and the chapter “Beginnings” by Seth Schwartz in The Illustrated History of the Jewish People, edited by Nicholas de Lange.