Secular Narrative of Jewish History

The key to a durable secular narrative of Jewish history is a correct understanding of the origins of the Hebrews.  The main reason for the power and appeal of the religious narrative is that it answers the question: why is the history of the Jewish people so unusual or even unique?  Why have two religions, Christianity and Islam, that dominate a large part of the world, been derived from Judaism?  Why has the Jewish people been so persecuted and oppressed?  The religious answer is that the Jewish people was chosen by God to spread His message around the world and that all the difficulties and accomplishments of the Jewish people derive from this fact.  By definition, secular narratives reject this answer, but for the most part they have nothing to put in its place.  They generally either deny the uniqueness of Jewish history or ignore it and concentrate on details.  This approach has resulted in a wealth of information about all aspects of Jewish history but not in a coherent narrative that can be summarized, condensed and handed down from one generation to another.


As some Biblical scholars have recognized, at least in part, there exists a mass of evidence unearthed in the past century showing that the Hebrews were members of a social class called “Habiru” or “Apiru” in numerous Accadian-language cuneiform documents (usually clay tablets) dating from the 2nd millenium BCE.  Documents referring to the Habiru have been found in many places in the Middle East, including modern Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Egypt.  The Habiru are variously described in these documents as bandits, mercenaries, day laborers or fugitives.  It is apparent that many of them were runaway slaves.  In the mass of Egyptian documents found at Tel al-Amarna and dating from the 14th century BCE, there are numerous references to the Habiru, who are depicted as playing a leading role in a Canaanite rebellion against Egyptian rule in Canaan.  Egyptians records also speak of Habiru taken away as prisoners from Canaan to Egypt and Habiru working as slaves on Egyptian building projects.  Some of these records date from the 13th century BCE, the time when the Hebrew exodus from Egypt is generally thought to have taken place.


In the light of this evidence, the fact that the Hebrews were Habiru would have been universally recognized by all Biblical scholars long ago, did not this fact conflict with the story of Abraham, Isaac, Israel and the twelve sons of Israel in the Book of Genesis.  It is apparent that the Habiru were not a nation but a social class composed of runaway slaves and other fugitives who grouped themselves into armed bands living on the outskirts of the more settled areas of the Middle East.  They could not possibly have all been descended from a single man but must have been composed of individuals from many different families and even different ethnic groups.  Those who prefer the narrative in the Book of Genesis therefore find it impossible to accept the obvious fact that the Hebrews were Habiru and find various pretexts to deny or ignore it.  Unfortunately, most secular historians have followed a similar course.  Despite their scepticism regarding the story that all the Hebrews were descended from one man, they too tend to ignore the Habiru, either out of deference to religious sensibilities or out of a disinclination to accept the fact that the Hebrews really were runaway slaves.  In particular, the German Protestant writers who have dominated the field of Biblical scholarship wanted the early Hebrews to be idealistic “peasants” and “villagers” rather than dangerous “bandits” and “mercenaries”.  Most secular writers in their turn have taken their cue from the Biblical scholars and either echoed the “peasants” and “villagers” theory or declared the whole subject to be too mysterious and difficult to comprehend.


A realistic summary of Hebrew origins would run somewhat as follows.  Following the defeat of the Canaanite rebellion against Egyptian rule in the 14th century BCE, some Habiru were carried away to Egypt as slaves, while others remained as armed bands in Canaan.  Following the death of the pharaoh Ramses 2 around 1220 BCE, a group of Habiru prisoners escaped from Egypt.  They were led by an Egyptian rebel and fugitive named Moses (the name Moses meant “son” or “child” in the Egyptian language of that time) who convinced them to think of themselves as a band of brothers united by the ritual of circumcision and by a common belief in an omnipotent deity very similar to the chief gods of the Egyptians.  Armed with these beliefs, the Habiru fugitives from Egypt formed a coalition of Habiru bands in Canaan and led them in the conquest of a large part of that area.  The fugitives became known as the “tribe” of Levi and the other bands also became known as “tribes”.  The main base and citadel of the Habiru “tribes” was the city of Shechem, which had been specifically granted to the Habiru by a Canaanite ruler named Labayu at the time of the 14th century rebellion against Egyptian rule.  The Habiru tribes accepted the myth of common descent from Abraham as a basis for their new identity as a band of brothers.  They adopted laws and rituals reflecting their origin as runaway slaves, and these laws and rituals set them apart from other nations whose culture was more dominated by wealth and privilege.


Jewish history begins at the point towards the end of the 11th century BCE when the Hebrew tribes united behind the leadership of the tribe of Judah and accepted the institution of a monarchy headed by king David.  The word “Jewish” is derived from the word “Yehudah”, meaning “Judah” in Hebrew.  The documents which constitute the so-called “Old Testament” (commonly called “Tanach” in Hebrew) were composed by the supporters of the kingdom of Judah and reflect their point of view.  They not only depict the Hebrews as the “sons of Israel” (“bnei Israel” in Hebrew) but depict the Hebrew flight from Egypt as the outcome of a long series of miracles worked by the omnipotent God of Moses.  The stress on the power of God, which permeates most of the books of Tanach, reflects the central role played by the Temple in Jerusalem in the perpetuation of the power and prestige of the Jewish monarchy.  This monarchical tradition, intertwined with the radical beliefs and outlook of the original Hebrews, became the basis of Jewish culture.  Throughout its history, Jewish culture has contained a conservative element, derived from the monarchy of Judah, and a radical element, derived from the Habiru.  Some narratives stress one element, some stress another, but a valid narrative would necessarily encompass both elements.  Moreover, both elements are fused in the Jewish Messianic tradition, in which monarchical and radical beliefs are both present.  A brief summary of the main phases of Jewish history from the time of David to the present would look as follows:


(1) The era of the monarchy of Judah.  This phase lasted until the conquest of the kingdom of Judah by the Babylonians around 586 BCE.  The dominant theme in the description of this era in Tanach is the rivalry between the kingdom of Judah and the kingdom of Israel, which was formed after the revolt of the ten tribes following the death of Solomon.  Recent archaeological discoveries have confirmed that the kingdom of Israel was much larger and more populous than the kingdom of Judah.  Its overthrow by the Assyrians around 722 BCE ushered in a decisive phase in the history of the Jewish people.  Most of the texts which now compose Tanach were probably composed or revised during the period of approximately 140 years between the fall of the kingdom of Israel to the Assyrians and the fall of the kingdom of Judah to the Babylonians.  These texts created what might be called the legend of the kingdom of Judah, and this legend created the basis for the subsequent formation of the Jewish people as a religious community.  The Jewish Messianic tradition also originated during this period, as reflected in the Book of Isaiah.  Through their literary activity, the priests and prophets of the kingdom of Judah ensured its survival in an idealized form in the memory of the people, making possible a long series of subsequent Messianic movements aimed at its revival.


(2) The period of foreign rule.  From approximately 586 to 165 BCE, the territory once ruled by David and Solomon became a part of the Babylonian, Persian, Ptolemaic and Seleucid empires in succession.  The key event of this period was the decision of the Persian ruler Cyrus to permit the Jewish exiles in Babylon to return and rebuild the Temple.  This decision was made in the context of a Persian policy of using the Aramaic language for administrative purposes outside of Iran and favoring Judaism as a religion similar to the Zoroastrian religion of the Persians.  Persian policy linked up with a Jewish priestly elite that used Aramaic script to write Hebrew and stressed the attachment of the Jewish people to the Temple in Jerusalem as the basis of Jewish culture.  The end product of this alliance was the Torah, based on earlier texts but now standardized, written in Aramaic script and devoted in large part to an exposition of the origins, duties and role of the Temple priesthood.  After the overthrow of Persian rule by the forces of Alexander of Macedon and the imposition, first of Ptolemaic, then of Seleucid rule, defense of Temple and Torah against the Hellenizing tendencies of the Greeks became the central theme in Jewish culture.  This in turn encouraged the growth of a class of scribes and teachers who were responsible for the actual dissemination of the Torah and its exposition in special places of assembly designed for that purpose.


(3) The Messianic era.  The period from 165 BCE to 135 CE was dominated by the struggle of the Jewish people to restore the kingdom of Judah in the face of attempts, first by Antioches Epiphanes, then by the Roman Caesars, to ban Judaism altogether.  Judah the Maccabee and the Hasmoneans did in fact succeed in driving out the Seleucids and establishing a Jewish kingdom which, under the rule of Alexander Jannai, controlled a large part of the territory which had constituted the kingdom of Judah in the time of David and Solomon.  Their success in turn inspired a number of Messianic movements directed against Roman rule, culminating in the acclamation of Simon bar Kochba as the “king Messiah” by rabbi Akiva around 132 CE.  The struggle for the restoration of the kingdom of Judah, accompanied by the growth of a large Jewish Diaspora in the Greek and Roman world, led to the rise of Judaism as a popular movement throughout the eastern Mediterranean region.  The Roman response was a policy of mass murder, resulting in the death of at least 2 million Jews in the land of Israel and another 1 million in the Diaspora.  One consequence of this series of events was the emergence of a new mystery religion in the Greco-Roman world centered around the worship and pseudo-cannibal consumption of the alleged Messiah of the Jews.  Another consequence was the decline and fall of the priestly Judaism that had been centered around the Temple and its replacement by a rabbinical Judaism based on the cult of the Torah.  Rabbinical Judaism preserved the concept of the Messiah, but in a supernatural form centered around a belief in the “end of days”, resurrection of the dead and establishment of the “kingdom of God” on earth.


(4) The era of the expansion of the Middle Eastern Diaspora.  From 135 CE to the rise of Islam around 630 CE, Judaism expanded at a rapid rate on the fringes of the Roman and Byzantine empires.  Mass conversions to Judaism took place at this time among the Berber tribes of North Africa, in Yemen and in Ethiopia.  Conversion to Judaism by these Middle Eastern peoples was undoubtedly a way of expressing their opposition to and defiance of Greco-Roman rule, which threatened them all with conquest and devastation.  At the same time, Judaism remained a major force in Iraq, where a Jewish community dating back to the Babylonian captivity numbered at least 1 million people.  For most of this period, Iraq was ruled by the revived Persian empire of the Sassanids, which was almost constantly at war with the Greco-Romans.  Jewish detachments served in the Persian army, and took part in the liberation of Jerusalem from Byzantine rule in 614 CE.  Unfortunately Jerusalem fell to the Byzantines less than 10 years later, followed by an attempt by the Byzantine Caesar Heraclius to ban Judaism throughout the Byzantine empire and also in Europe.  Mohammed’s career as a preacher spanned the period from 610 to 630 CE, coinciding first with the restoration of Jewish rule in Jerusalem and then with the Byzantine counter-offensive.  These circumstances were reflected in Mohammed’s teachings, which at first bore a close resemblance to Judaism but later took an anti-Jewish and pro-Christian turn.  Nonetheless Islam ultimately fell heir to the coalition of Middle Eastern peoples which had originally been formed under Jewish inspiration to oppose the efforts of the Greco-Romans to impose European rule on the entire Middle East.


(5) The Judeo-Islamic period.  From the rise of Islam around 630 CE to the start of the Crusades in 1096 CE, most of the Jewish communities in the Muslim world declined in size and became predominantly Arabic speaking.  The major exception to this rule was in Spain, whose conquest by the Arabs rescued the Jewish community there from Christian persecution and enabled it to grow rapidly in size and influence.  At the same time, the conversion of the Khazar ruling elite in southern Russia to Judaism created a new center of Jewish influence, which impacted positively on the situation of the Jews in both the Byzantine and Arab empires.  Judaism during this period – the so-called “Dark Ages” – was still a respected and influential ideology, although the restoration of Jewish rule in Jerusalem was no longer a realistic goal.  Even in Europe, the Carolingian rulers of France permitted the establishment of a semi-independent Jewish fiefdom in southern France.  But most Jews at this time lived under Muslim rule and a fruitful dialogue between Muslim and Jewish philosophers and other writers was characteristic of this era.  The fact that both Christianity and Islam had been derived from Judaism imbued Judaism with a certain prestige which compensated for the increasingly minority status of most Jewish communities and the seemingly final defeat of Jewish aspirations to revive the kingdom of Judah.  Most Jews who refused to accept this defeat gravitated towards the Karaite movement, which established small communities in the land of Israel that survived until the start of the Crusades.


(6) The era of segregation and persecution.  From the start of the Crusades in 1096 CE to the rise of Protestantism around 1520 CE, Jews in both the Muslim and Christian worlds endured a long series of massacres and persecutions, which culminated in the enclosure of most of the surviving Jewish communities in Europe in walled areas called ghettos.  The large Jewish community of Spain was gradually destroyed during this period, partly by forced conversion to Christianity, partly by massacre and expulsion.  Jews were formally barred from England and France and driven out of most German cities.  Jews in the Muslim world were compelled to wear special clothing and increasingly segregated, although not so completely as in the Christian world.  The main cause of this disastrous decline in Jewish status and prestige was the atmosphere of “holy war” generated first by the Crusades and then by the Muslim counter-reaction.  Segregation and discrimination against Jews became official Roman Catholic policy, endorsed as such by the 4th Lateran Council in 1215 CE.  The Jewish response to these pressures was the emergence of Kabbalah, in which Messianic themes and beliefs in a mystico-magical form were given great prominence.  But actual Jewish settlement in the land of Israel remained difficult or impossible due to the wars of the Crusades and the hardening of anti-Jewish attitudes among Muslims as well as Christians.  Never had the Jewish cause seemed so hopeless for such a long period of time as during this era.


(7) The era of revival and stabilization.  Due in part to the rise of Protestantism, in part to the rise of the Ottoman empire, there took place a gradual improvement in the Jewish situation between roughly 1520 CE and the time of the French and American revolutions around 1789 CE.  The Spanish Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 CE were allowed to settle in the Ottoman empire, where they formed stable Jewish communities in North Africa, the Balkans and the “four holy cities” (Jerusalem, Tiberias, Safed and Hebron) in the land of Israel.  The Protestant attitude towards the Jews was far more accepting than that of the Catholics, and Spanish Jews were allowed to settle in Protestant Holland and England and in their colonies in the New World.  Protestant influence also resulted in a certain improvement in the situation of Jews in Catholic countries.  In particular, the Jewish community in Poland expanded considerably during this period, although it was severely damaged by the massacres carried out by Ukrainian Cossacks in 1648 CE.  Jewish communities everywhere remained small and weak, but most were no longer so directly threatened by massacre and persecution as previously.  Kabbalah remained a powerful force in the Jewish world and inspired Jewish settlement in the “four holy cities” and the abortive Messianic movement led by Shabtai Tzvi after the massacres of 1648.  Interest in Kabbalah also grew in the Christian world and led to the formation of a number of “occult” sects towards the end of this period.


(8) The modern era.  From 1789 to the present, the Jewish people has experienced a series of momentous events unprecedented in our history.  First came “Jewish Emancipation” in Western Europe and the New World, where Jews were permitted to become citizens of avowedly secular states with the same rights and responsibilities as all other citizens.  Then came the Russian Revolution of 1917, where Jews played a prominent role in the establishment of the world’s first socialist state.  Then came the Holocaust carried out by the Nazis, resulting in the systematic murder of 6 million Jews, one third of the entire world Jewish population, in a brief period of time.  Then came the birth of the state of Israel and the return of millions of Jews to the land of our ancestors, the culmination of 2000 years of hope and struggle.  No brief outline can possibly summarize the meaning and significance of these events.  What is certain is that the future of the Jewish people depends first upon the preservation of the state of Israel and second upon the preservation of equal rights for Jewish citizens in democratic and secular states everywhere.  In the final analysis it also depends upon the fulfillment of the Messianic dream of the inauguration of an era of peace and prosperity on a world scale.


There remains the question of what lessons can be learned from a secular narrative of Jewish history.  The following points stand out:

(1) The main cause of both the persecution which the Jewish people has suffered and the powerful influence on world history which we have exerted is the radical strand in Jewish tradition deriving from the origin of the Hebrews as runaway slaves.  This strand was eventually embodied in the Jewish Messianic ideal, which has inspired radical movements for social equality and national self-determination throughout the world for literally thousands of years.  It has also caused powerful empires to regard us with hatred, leading to systematic persecutions and mass murders.

(2) Assimilation of the Jewish Messianic ideal into world culture was greatly facilitated by the presence of the conservative, monarchical strand in Jewish tradition, most clearly symbolized by the Jewish concept of God.  This concept was appropriated by both Christianity and Islam, initially under the influence of the Jewish Messianic ideal, but eventually as part of an effort to legitimize Christian and Muslim empires with a veneer of social concern.

(3)  For the past three thousand years, the driving force of Jewish history has been the effort to preserve or reconstitute a Jewish state on the territory of the land of Israel..  This effort led to the formation of the Jewish people as a religious community, to a long series of wars and Messianic movements, to the rabbinic ideology of Kabbalah and eventually to the emergence of modern Zionism and the birth of the secular, democratic state of Israel..

One thought on “Secular Narrative of Jewish History

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