Home Special Reports The History of Palestine and Israel in the light of Hebrew Bible

The History of Palestine and Israel in the light of Hebrew Bible

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To become an Israelite, later on a Jew – the word “Jew” isn’t something we can really historically use until about this time [ca. 500 BCE], so most of our period we’re going to be talking about the ancient Israelites – to become an Israelite, you simply joined the Israelite community, you lived an Israelite life, you died an Israelite death. You obeyed Israelite law and custom, you revered Israelite lore, and you entered into the historical community of Israel by accepting that their fate and yours should be the same. It was sort of a process of naturalization, what we think of today as naturalization. So the Hebrew Bible just isn’t a theological textbook. It contains a lot of narratives and its narrative materials are an account of the odyssey of a people, the nation of Israel. They’re not an account of the divine, which is what theology means, an account of the divine. However, having said this, I should add that although the Bible doesn’t contain formal statements of religious belief or systematic theology, it treats issues, many moral issues and some existential issues that are central to the later discipline of theology, but it treats them very differently. Its treatment of these issues is indirect, it’s implicit. It uses the language of story and song and poetry and paradox and metaphor. It uses a language and a style that’s very far from the language and style of later philosophy and abstract theology. Following First chapter of Gospel of Genesis is the example of paradox and poetry:
“1. In the beginning, Elohim created the heaven and the earth; 2. Now the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of Elohim hovered over the face of the waters; 3. And Elohim said: Let there be light: and there was light; 4. And Elohim saw the light, that it was good. And Elohim divided the light from the darkness; 5. And Elohim called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And there was evening, and there was morning, one day; 6. And Elohim said: Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters, from the waters; 7. And Elohim made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament, from the waters which were above the firmament, and it was so; 8. And Elohim called the firmament Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, a second day; 9. And Elohim said: Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear. And it was so; 10. And Elohim called the dry land Earth, and the gathering together of the waters called He, Seas. And Elohim saw that it was good; 11. And Elohim said: Let the earth put forth grass, herb yielding seed, and fruit tree bearing fruit after its kind, wherein is the seed thereof, upon the earth. And it was so; 12. and the earth brought forth grass, herb yielding seed after its kind, and tree bearing fruit, where in is the seed thereof, after its kind. And Elohim saw that it was good; 13. And there was evening and there was morning, a third day; 14. And Elohim said: Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night. And let them be for signs, and for seasons, 1 and for days, and years; 15. And let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven, to give light upon the earth. And it was so; 16. And Elohim made the two great lights: the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night, and the stars; 17. And Elohim set them in the firmament of the heaven, to give light upon the earth; 18. And to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness. And Elohim saw that it was good; 19. And there was evening and there was morning, a fourth day; 20. And Elohim said: Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let fowl fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven; 21. And Elohim created the great sea creatures, and every living creature that creeps with which the waters swarmed after its kind, and every winged fowl after its kind. And Elohim saw that it was good; 22. And Elohim blessed them, saying: Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth; 23 And there was evening and there was morning, a fifth day; 24 And Elohim said: Let the earth bring forth the living creature after its kind: cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth, after its kind. And it was so; 25. And Elohim made the beast of the earth after its kind and the cattle after their kind and everything that creeps upon the earth after its kind. And Elohim saw that it was good; 26. And Elohim said: Let us make man in our image; after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth; 27. And Elohim2 created man in His own image: in the image of Elohim created He him; male and female created He them; 28. And Elohim blessed them, and Elohim said unto them: Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth and subdue it. And have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creeps upon the earth; 29. And Elohim said: Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for food; 30. And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to everything that creeps upon the earth, wherein there is a living soul, I have given every green herb for food. And it was so; 31. And Elohim saw everything that He had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
1 MOEDIM literally “set times”. This is also the word used for “feasts”.”
Holy Bible, the Torah Part-Bereshit (Genesis) Chapter Number: 1.
Finally, on our myth count, I would point out – well I don’t really need to cross this out, this is something to discuss – I would point out that the Bible was formulated and assembled and edited and modified and censored and transmitted first orally and then in writing by human beings. The Bible itself doesn’t claim to have been written by God. That belief is a religious doctrine of a much later age. And even then one wonders how literally it was meant – it’s interesting to go back and look at some of the earliest claims about the origin of the biblical text. Similarly, the so-called five books of Moses – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, the first five books we call the Pentateuch of Moses – nowhere claim to have been written in their entirety by Moses. That’s not something they say themselves. Some laws in Exodus, you know, the Book of the Covenant, a few things – yes, it says Moses wrote those down, but not the whole five books that tradition later will ascribe to him. The Bible clearly had many contributors over many centuries, and the individual styles and concerns of those writers, their political and religious motivations, betray themselves frequently. The following verses of few chapters are:
“1. And the heaven and the earth were finished, and the entire host of them; 2. And on the sixth day 3 Elohim finished His work which He had made. And He rested on the seventh day, from all His work which He had made; 3 And Elohim blessed the seventh day, and Set it Apart. Because that, in it, He rested from all His work which Elohim in creating, had made; 4. These are the generations of the heaven and of the earth when they were created, in the day that YHWH Elohim made earth and heaven; 5. No shrub of the field was yet in the earth, and no herb of the field had yet sprung up, for YHWH Elohim had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was not a man to till the earth; 6. But there went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the earth; 7. Then YHWH Elohim formed man of the dust of the earth, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul; 8. And YHWH Elohim, planted a garden eastward in Eden, and there He put the man whom He had formed; 9. And out of the earth, made YHWH Elohim to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food: the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; 10. And a river went out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it was parted and became four heads; 11. The name of the first is Pishon: that is it which compasses the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; 12. And the gold of that land is good; there is bdellium and the onyx stone; 13. And the name of the second river is Gihon: the same is it that compasses the whole land of Kush; 14. And the name of the third river is Tigris: that is it which goes toward the east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates; 15. And YHWH Elohim took the man and put him into the Garden of Eden, to dress it and to keep it; 16. And YHWH Elohim commanded the man, saying: Of every tree of the garden, you may freely eat; 17. But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat of it. For in the day that you eat thereof, you shall surely die; 18. And YHWH Elohim said: It is not good that the man should be alone. I will make him a help meet for him; 19. And out of the earth YHWH Elohim formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air, and brought them unto the man to see what he would call them. And whatsoever the man would call every living creature, that was to be the name thereof; 20. And the man gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field. But for Adam, there was not found a help meet for him; 21. And YHWH Elohim caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept. And He took one of his ribs, 4 and closed up the place with flesh instead thereof; 22. And the rib, 5 which YHWH Elohim had taken from the man, made He a woman, and brought her unto the man; 23. And the man said, this is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh. She shall be called Woman, 6 because she was taken out of Man; 24. Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh; 25 And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.”
2 Targum Onkelos “the Word of YHWH”.
3 The Samaritan Pentateuch; Aramaic Peshitta and Greek LXX all have “sixth day”, while the Masoretic Text has “seventh day”. The passage has not survived in any of the Dead Sea Scroll manuscripts. “Sixth day” fits the context better than “seventh day”.
4 Or “sides”.
5 Or “side”.
6 There is wordplay in the Hebrew here. The Hebrew word for “woman” is ISHAH and the word for “man” is ISH. While ISHAH (woman) sounds like ISH (man) it actually comes from another root meaning “to be soft”.
Holy Bible, the Torah Part-Bereshit (Genesis) Chapter Number: 2.
I leave aside here the question of divine inspiration, which is an article of faith in many biblical religions. It’s no doubt an article of faith for people in this very room. But there is no basic incompatibility between believing on faith in the divine inspiration of the Bible and acknowledging the role that human beings have played in the actual formulation and editing and transmission and preservation of that same Bible. And since this is a university course and not perhaps a theological course or within a theological setting, it’s really only the latter, the demonstrably human component, that will concern us. It’s very easy for me to assert that our interest in the Hebrew Bible will be cantered on the culture and the history and the literature and the religious thought of ancient Israel in all of its diversity rather than questions of faith and theology. But the fact remains that the document is the basis for the religious faith of many millions of people, and some of them are here now.
It is inevitable that you will bring what you learn in this course into dialogue with your own personal religious beliefs, and for some of you, I hope all of you that will be enriching and exciting. For some of you it may be difficult. I know that, and I want you to rest assured that no one in this course wishes to undermine or malign religious faith any more than they wish to promote or proselytize for religious faith. Religious faith simply isn’t the topic of this course. The rich history and literature and religious thought of ancient Israel as preserved for us over millennia in the pages of this remarkable volume, that is our topic, and so our approach is going to be necessarily academic; and especially given the diversity of people in this room, that’s really all that it can be, so that we have a common ground and common goals for our discussions. But it has been my experience that from time to time students will raise a question or ask a question that is prompted by a commitment, a prior commitment to an article of faith.
Sometimes they’re not even aware that that’s what they’re doing, and I want you to understand that on those occasions I’ll most likely respond by inviting you to consider the article of faith that lies behind that question and is creating that particular problem for you. I’m not going to be drawn into a philosophical or theological debate over the merits of that belief, but I’ll simply point out how or why that belief might be making it difficult for you to read or accept what the text is actually and not ideally saying, and leave you to think about that. And I see those as wonderful learning opportunities for the discussion. Those are in no way a problem for me. All right, so let’s give a few sort of necessary facts and figures now about the Bible and then I need to talk a little bit about the organization of the course. So those are the last two things we really need to do.
Overview of the structure of the Bible. So, the Bible is this assemblage of books and writings dating from approximately 1000 BCE – we’re going to hear very diverse opinions about how far back this stuff dates – down to the second century: the last book within the Hebrew Bible was written in the 160s BCE. Some of these books which we think are roughly from a certain date, they will contain narrative snippets or legal materials or oral traditions that may even date back or stretch back further in time, and they were perhaps transmitted orally and then ended up in these written forms. The Bible is written largely in Hebrew, hence the name Hebrew Bible. These writings have had a profound and lasting impact on three world religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. For the Jewish communities who first compiled these writings in the pre-Christian era, the Bible was perhaps first and foremost a record of God’s eternal covenant with the Jewish people. The historical importance of the biblical historiography could be traced with this chapter:
“1. Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which YHWH Elohim had made. And he said unto the woman, Yes, has Elohim said, You shall not eat of any tree of the garden?; 2. And the woman said unto the serpent, Of the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat; 3. But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, Elohim has said: You shall not eat of it, neither shall you touch it, lest you die; 4. And the serpent said unto the woman, You shall not surely die; 5. For Elohim does know, that in the day you eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened. And you shall be as Elohim, knowing good and evil; 6. And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof and did eat. And she gave also unto her husband with her, and he did eat; 7. And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves garments; 8. And they heard the voice of YHWH Elohim, walking in the garden toward the cool of the day. And the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of YHWH Elohim, among the trees of the garden; 9. And YHWH Elohim called unto the man, and said unto him: Where are you?; 10. And he said, I heard your voice in the garden. And I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself; 11. And He said: Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree whereof I commanded you that you should not eat?; 12. And the man said, the woman whom you gave to be with me … she gave me of the tree, and I did eat; 13. And YHWH Elohim said unto the woman: What is this you have done? And the woman said, the serpent beguiled me, and I did eat; 14; And YHWH Elohim said unto the serpent: Because you have done this, cursed are you from among all cattle, and from among all beasts of the field. Upon your belly shall you go, and dust shall you eat all the days of your life; 15. And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed. They shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise their heel; 16. Unto the woman He said: I will greatly multiply your pain and your travail; in pain you shall bring forth children. And your desire shall be to your husband, and he shall rule over you; 17. And unto Adam He said: Because you have hearkened unto the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, saying: You shall not eat of it …Cursed is the earth for your sake; in toil shall you eat of it all the days of your life; 18. Thorns also, and thistles shall it bring forth to you: and you shall eat the herb of the field; 19. in the sweat of your face shall you eat bread, till you return unto the earth, for out of it were you taken. For dust you are, and unto dust shall you return; 20. And the man called his wife’s name Havah, because she was the mother of all living; 21. And YHWH Elohim made for Adam and for his wife, garments of skins and clothed them; 22. And YHWH Elohim said: Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil. And now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever; 23. Therefore YHWH Elohim sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the earth from whence he was taken; 24. So He drove out the man. And He placed at the east of the Garden of Eden, the cheruvim and the flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way to the tree of Life.”
Cherubim is used in Hebraic version for Cheruvim.
Holy Bible, the Torah Part-Bereshit (Genesis) Chapter Number: 3.
So Jews refer to the Bible as the Tanakh. It’s the term you see up here. It should be also on that sheet, Tanakh, which is really the letter [sounds] “t”, “n” and “kh”, and they’ve put little “a’s” in there to make it easy to pronounce, because kh is hard to pronounce, so Tanach. Okay? And this is an acronym. The T stands for Torah, which is a word that means instruction or teaching. It’s often translated “law”; I think that’s a very poor translation. It means instruction, way, teaching, and that refers to the first five books that you see listed here, Genesis through Deuteronomy.
The second division of the Bible is referred to as Nevi’im, which is the Hebrew word for “prophets.” The section of the Prophets is divided really into two parts, because there are two types of writing in the prophetic section of the Bible. The first or former Prophets continues the kind of narrative prose account of the history of Israel, focusing on the activities of Israel’s prophets. All right? So, the former Prophets are narrative texts. The Latter Prophets are poetic and oracular writings that bear the name of the prophet to whom the writings are ascribed. You have the three Major Prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, and then the twelve Minor Prophets, which in the Hebrew Bible get counted together as one book, because those twelve are very small.
The final section of the Bible is referred to as Ketuvim in Hebrew, which simply means “Writings,” and that’s probably about 50% of the Hebrew you’re going to get in the whole course, so please don’t be scared. You know, I’ve got two or three other terms that’ll be useful along the way, but there’s really no need to know Hebrew. I just want you to understand why Tanakh is the word that’s used to refer to the Bible. So the Ketuvim, or the Writings, are really a miscellany. They contain works of various types, and the three parts correspond very roughly to the process of canonization or authoritativeness for the community. The Torah probably reached a fixed and authoritative status first, then the books of the Prophets and finally the Writings. And probably by the end of the first century, all of this was organized in some way. If you look at the other handout, you’ll see, however, and that any course on the Bible is going to run immediately into the problem of defining the object of study, because different Bibles served different communities over the centuries.
One of the earliest translations of the Hebrew Bible was a translation into Greek known as the Septuagint. It was written for the benefit – it was translated for the benefit of Jews who lived in Alexandria – Greek-speaking Jews who lived in Alexandria, Egypt in the Hellenistic period somewhere around the third or second century BCE. The translation has some divergences with the traditional Hebrew text of the Bible as we now have it, including the order of the books, and some of these things are charted for you on the chart that I’ve handed out. The Septuagint’s rationale for ordering the books is temporal. They’ve clustered books Genesis through Esther, which tell of things past; the books of Job through the Song of Songs or the Song of Solomon contain wisdom that applies to the present; and then the prophetic books, Isaiah to Malachi, contain or tell of things future. Some copies of the Septuagint contain some books not included in the Hebrew canon but accepted in the early Christian canon. The Septuagint, the Greek translation, became by and large the Bible of Christianity, or more precisely it became the “Old Testament” of the Hebrew Bible.