You shall be My people, and I shall be your God.”—Exodus, 6:7
Arch of Titus, Rome. © www.BibleLandPictures.com / Alamy.
The Jews are the descendants of a family that has borne many names and has dwelled in many lands. Though academics and scholars may differ as to historical events whose exact details remain shrouded in the distant past, the traditional narrative of the origins of the Jewish People is firmly anchored in the earliest texts of the Hebrew Bible. The first progenitor of note was Abraham. Born in Mesopotamia and descended from idolators, it was he who chose to follow the One God, and in turn was chosen by Him. Heeding the divine command, Abraham migrated to Canaan, where he and his descendants were called Hebrews, or “those who traverse,” an appellation signifying geographic and social distinctions from the surrounding peoples.
The Hebrews thrived in their new home and took their next name from Abraham’s grandson Jacob, who, after wrestling with the Angel of the Lord was henceforth to be called Israel, “for he had striven with God and man, and had prevailed.” The subsequent eponymous designation of both the people and the land in which they lived proved to be prophetic, and in the generations to come, the Israelites continued to be engaged in an unending series of struggles with both God and man. The Bible tells us of a people who were by turns chosen, exiled, enslaved, and redeemed. When the people Israel returned to hegemony in the Land of Israel, it was through the deeds of their judges and kings and the words of their prophets that they soared to dizzying heights and fell to abysmal depths. Periods of peace were punctuated by intermittent wars, some against foreign powers, but all too frequently, some which pitted Israelites against one another, eventually splitting the Kingdom and weakening the nation. Their ongoing relationship with the One God was likewise striking in its contradictions. They built a Temple in the capital of Jerusalem but, in the hearts of many, it competed with a residual fealty to traditional idols. The story of the Israelites and their relationship with the One God is a tale of covenant and confrontation, as periods of obedience and loyalty to God’s laws were tempered by episodes of faithlessness and defiance.
It was from this loosely confederated band of tribes, nomads, former slaves, and indigenous peoples that a nation eventually emerged, after yet another episode of exile and repatriation, this time from Babylonia in the 6th century BCE. The building of the Second Temple in 516 BCE, once again in Jerusalem, marked a new beginning. An enduring monotheistic culture burst forth, effectively removing the vestigial cataracts of idolatrous practice from the eyes of the people. No longer were scattered worship sites, minor temples, and foreign gods and goddesses found throughout the countryside of the Land of Israel. Now, only a single, central cultic site existed and it became the focal point of the worship of the One God. The Temple’s placement within the territory of the Tribe of Judah gave a name to the faith tradition that would henceforth serve as the central characteristic of the national identity. The faith was called Judaism, and its adherents, the Jewish people. Even as Jews spread around the world, taking up residence in the shadows of the great world empires in places as far afield as Europe, Africa, and Asia, their hearts, their prayers, and their material support were continuously directed to the Land of Israel and to the Temple of the One God.
It is from this period that we have the earliest physical remnants of the Jewish people. The epithets recorded on ancient seals from this era begin to incorporate the name of the One God rather than the names of lesser deities. Archeological inscriptions testify to the prevalence of monotheistic worship and the decline of idolatry. Over the ensuing centuries, the foothold of faith grew ever stronger. By the time of the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, the centralized sacrifice-based cultic worship of the Temple had already been augmented, wherever Jews lived, by the development of a new institution, the synagogue, or house of gathering. Whereas the foremost relic in the Temple had been the Ark of the Covenant containing the Tablets on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed, each synagogue too, had an ark containing the Law of God as written in the Torah Scroll. Whereas the Temple was centered on an altar for sacrificial offerings of rams and bullocks, each synagogue had a central reader’s platform from which verbal prayers and words of praise and supplication replaced carnal sacrifices. The priests who had been essential to Temple worship were superseded by a new meritocracy of scholars, each of whom was accorded the title of Rabbi, meaning teacher. The rabbis established their center of learning in the Galilee and maintained strong contacts with similarly situated Jewish scholars in far-flung communities. The rabbis and their followers supported a Great Revolt against the Roman authorities in the early second century, but its failure led to the departure of most of the remaining Jews from the Land of Israel and set the stage for the longest exile the Jews have ever known.
Thus, bereft of their Temple and dispossessed of their homeland, the Jewish people indomitably made their way into the wider world. Unlike so many vanished nations of antiquity, the Jews did not disappear, for they carried with them the strength of their belief in the One God. Dispersed among the nations, strangers in every land, they nevertheless ensured their survival by steadfastly maintaining their faith, a faith which would in the years ahead, inspire the spread of monotheism in nearly every corner of the earth.
This essay has been excerpted from the catalogue to A Treasured Legacy: The Michael and Judy Steinhardt Judaica Collection, an auction taking place at Sotheby’s New York on 29 April. To view objects from antiquity included in the sale go to lots 48-50.
Next essay: The Jews in the Medieval Period