Ancient Hebrews and their Ethical Monotheism
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Summary of Ancient Hebrews and their Ethical Monotheism
Write a general essay summary (about 300 words) based exclusively on the provided text. While summarizing, please provide at least 8 different historic dates/periods as you write, e.g. the year when X happened, the century when Y happened, etc.
Please use and cite the text from below by Sherman, Dennis. The West in the World, Vol. 1, Ed. 5. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2015. pp. 25-29.
The People of the One God: Early Hebrew History,
While the Sumerians and their successors in Mesopotamia developed complex civilizations based on irrigation and built ziggurats to their many deities, the seminomadic Hebrews moved their flocks from Mesopotamia into the land of Canaan, comprising much of the modern states of Israel, Lebanon, and western Syria. As they traveled, they shared many of the ancient stories of Mesopotamia, such as the tale of a great flood that destroyed the land (present in The Epic of Gilgamesh, described earlier) and a lost Garden of Eden. The Hebrews, perhaps seeing the Mesopotamian ziggurats from a distance, also viewed their neighbors as overly proud. The Hebrew story of the ill-fated Tower of Babel captures this theme of overweening pride.
Sometime before about 1700 b.c.e., the early leaders of the Hebrews, the patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—led these semi-nomadic tribes that roamed the eastern Mediterranean and beyond. Jacob changed his name to Israel (“he who prevails with God”), and this name marked Jacob’s followers as having a special relationship with one God. Consequently, historians refer to these tribes as the Israelites. Several clans traveled to Egypt, where Israelite texts claim they were enslaved by the Egyptians, although their status is not clear. They might simply have been employed in the labor-intensive Egyptian work projects, and their position may have changed over time to a more restrictive relationship. Some historians identify the Israelites with a group who helped build the huge projects of the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II (r. ca. 1279–1213 b.c.e.). According to the Bible, Moses led this same group from Egypt. This Exodus (which means “journey out” in Greek) transformed them into a nation with a specific religious calling.
The details of the history of the Israelites are found in the Hebrew Scriptures (later called the Old Testament by Christians). Made up of writings from oral and written traditions and dating from about 1250 to 150 b.c.e., these Scriptures record laws, wisdom, legends, literature, and the history of the ancient Israelites. The first five books (known as the Pentateuch) constitute the Torah, or law code, which governed the people’s lives. The Bible contains some information that is historically accurate and can be generally confirmed by archaeological evidence. For example, as early as 1208 b.c.e. the pharaoh Marneptah, the son of Ramses II, erected a victory stone recording his triumphs, including the conquest of Israel: “Israel is laid waste, his seed is no more …” The Egyptian god-king would not have bothered to brag about the conquest of the Israelites if this accomplishment had not been fairly substantial, so we know that the Bible’s descriptions of a strong Israelite kingdom in Palestine during the second millennium b.c.e. are well founded.
Historians must be cautious when using the Bible as a source, because it is basically a religious book that reveals faith, not science. Archaeology and history can illuminate the events of the ancient Israelites, but these sciences can shed no light on the faith that underlies the text. Used carefully, though, the Bible is an important source of information on these early Israelites, for they made a point to record and remember their own history—they wove teachings and morality into a historical narrative. Thus, Hebrew religion was rooted in history rather than myth, and from this text we can begin to re-create the early history of this profoundly influential people.
Establishing a kingdom
According to the Bible, the Hebrews from Egypt eventually returned to ancient Palestine and slowly reconquered the land, uniting the other nearby Hebrew tribes in the process. During this period of settlement, between about 1200 and 1050 b.c.e., Israelites experienced a change in leadership. Instead of relying solely on tribal leaders, people turned to “judges”—charismatic leaders who helped unite the people against the threats of their neighbors. In time, the elders of the tribes felt they needed a king to lead the people, declaring, “then we shall be like other nations, with a king to govern us, to lead us out to war and fight our battles” (1 Sam. 8:20). The people insisted that Samuel, the last of the judges, anoint their first king, Saul (r. ca. 1024–ca. 1000 b.c.e.).
Saul’s successor, David (r. ca. 1000–ca. 961 b.c.e.), began encouraging the tribes to settle in a fixed location, with their capital at Jerusalem. David’s successor, Solomon (r. ca. 961–ca. 922 b.c.e.), brought Phoenician craftsmen to Jerusalem to build a great temple there. Now a territorial power like others in the Fertile Crescent, the Hebrews worshiped their God in the temple overlooking a majestic city. But the costs of the temple were exorbitant, causing increased taxes and the growth of an administrative structure to collect them.
Dividing a kingdom
Solomon was a king in the Mesopotamian style. If the biblical account is to be believed, he used marriage to forge political alliances, accumulating hundreds of wives and many hundreds more concubines, including the daughter of an Egyptian pharaoh. The biblical text shows Solomon’s fame, long-distance trade, and the difficulties accompanying his many marriages. However, the unified kingdom of tribes barely outlasted Solomon’s reign. After his death, the northern tribes—particularly angry about Solomon’s taxation and administrative innovations—broke away to form the separate kingdom of Israel. The southern state was called Judah, with its capital at Jerusalem, and at this time the southern Israelites began to be called Jews. Israel was the more prosperous of the two kingdoms and was tied more closely to Phoenicia by trade and other contacts. Judah adhered more rigorously to the old Hebrew laws. The two kingdoms often fought each other as they participated in the shifting alliances of their neighbors. Dominating all politics, however, was their commitment to their one God.
The authors of the Scriptures developed an overriding theme in Jewish history: the intimate relationship between obedience to God’s laws and the unfolding of the history of the Jewish people. As these authors recorded their recollection of events, they told of periodic violations of the uncompromising covenant with God and the resulting punishments that God imposed.
A Jealous God,1300–587 b.c.e.
When Moses led his people out of Egypt, they reportedly wandered for forty years in the wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula before returning to the land of Canaan. During that time, Moses bound his people to God in a special covenant, or agreement, through which the Jews would be God’s “chosen people” in return for their undivided worship. The ancient Hebrews were not strictly monotheistic, for they believed in the existence of the many deities of their neighbors. For Moses’ people, however, there was only one God, and this God demanded their exclusive worship. As the historian of the sixth century b.c.e. wrote in the Bible’s Book of Deuteronomy, “He is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commands.” This promise was a conditional one: God would care for his people only if they practiced his laws, and there were many laws.
The core of the Hebrew legal tradition lay in the Ten Commandments that the Bible claims God gave to Moses during his exodus from Egypt, and these were supplemented by other requirements listed in the Scriptures. Adhering to these laws defined one as a Jew. While the laws bound the Jewish people together—to “love thy neighbor as thyself”—they also set the Jews apart from their neighbors. For example, boys were circumcised as a mark of the covenant between God and his people. In addition, Jews observed strict dietary laws that separated them from others—for example, they could eat no pork nor any animal that had been improperly slaughtered. But the fundamental commandment that allowed for no compromise with non-Jews was the injunction against worshiping the idols, or deities, of their neighbors.
KEY DATES – HEBREWS
ca. 1250 b.c.e.
Moses exodus from Egypt
ca. 1200–1050 b.c.e.
ca. 1024–ca. 1000 b.c.e.
ca. 1000–ca. 961 b.c.e.
ca. 961–ca. 922 b.c.e.
ca. 800 b.c.e.
Second Temple built
Around the eighth century b.c.e., Jews were called to even higher ethical standards by a remarkable series of charismatic men—the prophets. These men, such as Amos, Micah, Hosea, Jeremiah, and Isaiah, were neither kings nor priests nor soldiers. Instead, they were common people— shepherds or tradesmen—who cared nothing for power or glory. They were brave men who urged their people to return to the covenant and traditional Hebrew law. In times of social distress, they became the conscience of Israel, and in turn they helped shape the social conscience that was to become part of Western civilization. The prophets reminded the Jews to care for the poor: “Seek justice, relieve the oppressed, Judge the fatherless, plead for the widow” (Isa. 1:17). In doing so, they emphasized the direct ethical responsibility of every individual. Unlike the other religions of the ancient Middle East, Judaism called individuals to follow their consciences to create a more ethical world. Religion was no longer a matter of rituals of the temple, but a matter of people’s hearts and minds. The prophets preached a religion that would be able to withstand turmoil and political destruction, and it is fortunate that they did so, for the Hebrews would suffer much adversity, which they believed was a form of testing by their God.
According to the Bible, King Solomon had a weakness that stemmed from his polygamy. Not only did he violate the biblical command not to take foreign wives, but to please them he allowed the worship of other deities (especially the fertility goddess Astarte), even in the holy city of Jerusalem. Prophets claimed that it was his impiety that had divided the kingdom against itself. Later events showed a similar theme. Ahab (r. 869–850 b.c.e.), king of the northern kingdom of Israel, married a Phoenician princess, Jezebel, and erected an altar to her god Baal to please her. When Israel was conquered in 721 b.c.e. by the Assyrians, prophets who had predicted its downfall pointed to Ahab’s breach of the covenant as the cause of the misfortune. The southern kingdom of Judah fared little better than Israel in trying to escape the aggressions of its neighbors. In 587 b.c.e., the Babylonians captured Jerusalem and destroyed Solomon’s magnificent temple. Many Jews were exiled and enslaved in Babylon, and the “chosen people” were once more without a country or a religious center. From then on, there would be substantial numbers of Jews who lived outside Israel or Judah, and they later would be collectively known as the Diaspora. Instead of renouncing their God, however, the Jews reaffirmed their covenant in a different way.
Judaism in Exile
Hebrew priests in exile worried that Diaspora Jews living among non-Jews would forget the old traditions and be assimilated into the cultures of their neighbors. Therefore, they carefully compiled and edited the Scriptures to preserve their unique view of religion and history. These written accounts helped Judaism survive without a geographic center. The authors of the Scriptures arranged the history of the Jews to show that, despite hardships, God had always cared for his people. The priests believed that the destruction of the two Hebrew kingdoms had come because people either did not know the laws or had failed to obey them. As a result, Hebrew teachers emphasized the study of and strict adherence to the purity laws to keep their people separate from others even when they lived in close proximity as neighbors.
Without the temple in Jerusalem to serve as the center of worship, Jewish worship began to convene in more local establishments—synagogues and the home itself. This movement had an important impact on the status of women in Jewish culture. The emphasis on details of purity law to keep the chosen people separate reduced women’s roles in formal prayer because the law stressed that anyone worshiping God had to be “clean.” Women, seen as sometimes unclean because of menstrual blood or childbirth, were excluded from participating in the formal worship rituals. On the other hand, the experience of exile strengthened the family as a social and religious unit, a change that improved women’s lives in other ways. For example, concubinage disappeared and women presided over the household, upholding the dietary laws and household rituals that preserved the Jewish culture wherever they lived.
“Second Temple” period in time, however, the Hebrews were able to reestablish their religious center in Jerusalem. After ruling Judah for forty-eight years, the Babylonians were, in turn, conquered by new peoples, the Persians. The Persians proved much more tolerant than the Babylonians of the varied beliefs of their subject peoples. In 538 b.c.e., the Persian king Cyrus let the Jewish exiles return to Jerusalem. The Jews built a new temple in 515 b.c.e., an event that introduced the “Second Temple” period. Again, the Jews had a temple and center of worship like other Mesopotamian peoples. However, all Jews did not return to Israel, and the question of the relationship between Diaspora Jews and the cultures in which they lived would reemerge periodically throughout history as followers of this old covenant interacted with their neighbors.
The ancient Hebrews made a tremendous impact on the future of Western civilization. They believed that God created the world at a specific point in time, and this notion set them apart dramatically from their neighbors, such as the Egyptians, who believed in the eternity of the world. The Hebrews’ view of history as a series of purposeful, morally significant events was unprecedented in the ancient world. Their concept of ethical monotheism, in which a single God of justice interacted with humans in a personal and spiritual way, offered a vision of religion that eventually dominated in the West. The many deities and demons that ruled the Mesopotamian and Egyptian worlds would in time be rendered insignificant by the God of the Hebrews, who transcended nature. The Hebrews believed that there was a profound distance between people and God, and thus individuals took more responsibility for the events of this world even as they worshiped and held in awe the deity who had made a deep and abiding covenant with the Jewish people.
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