Tag Archives: Reading History

‘A History of the Jews’ by Paul Johnson

Adapted and edited by R.M. Shurmer

The Jews are the most tenacious people in history. Hebron is there to prove it. It lies 20 miles south of Jerusalem, 3000 feet up in the Judaean hills. There, in the Cave of Machpelah, are the Tombs of the Patriarchs. According to ancient tradition, one sepulchre, itself of great antiquity, contains the mortal remains of Abraham, founder of the Jewish religion and ancestor of the Jewish people. Paired with his tomb is that of his wife Sarah. Within the building are the twin tombs of his son Isaac and his wife Rebecca.Across the inner courtyard is another pair of tombs, of Abraham’s grandson Jacob and his wife Leah. Just outside the building is the tomb of their son Joseph. This is where the 4000-year history of the Jews, in so far as it can be anchored in time and place, began.

Hebron has great and venerable beauty. It provides peace and stillness often to be found in ancient sanctuaries. But its stones are mute witness to constant strife and four thousand years of religious and political disputes. It has been in turn a Hebrew shrine, a synagogue, a Byzantine Christian basilica, an Islamic masque, a crusader church, and then a mosque again. Hebron reflects the long tragic history of the Jews and their unrivaled capacity to survive their misfortunes. David was anointed king there, first of the Kingdom of Judah, then of all Israel. When Jerusalem fell in 73 AD, the Jews were expelled. It was conquered by Greece, then by Rome, converted, plundered, burned by the Romans, occupied in turn by Arabs, Franks, and Egyptians. From 1266 the Jews were forbidden to enter the Cave to pray. When Israeli soldiers entered Hebron during the Six Day War in 1967, for a generation not one Jew had lived there. A modest settlement was reestablished in 1970. Despite much fear and uncertainty, it has flourished.

So when the historian visits Hebron today, he asks himself: where are all those peoples which once held the place? Where are the Canaanites? Where are the Edomites? Where are the ancient Greeks and Romans, the Byzantines, the Franks, the Egyptians and the Turks? They have vanished into time, irrevocably. But the Jews are still in Hebron.

Hebron is thus an example of Jewish obstinacy over 4000 years. It also illustrates the curious ambivalence of the Jews towards the possession and occupation of land. No people has maintained over so long a period so emotional an attachment to a particular corner of the earth’s surface. But none has shown so strong and persistent an instinct to migrate, such courage and skill in pulling up and replanting its roots. It is a curious fact that, for more than three-quarters of their existence as a people, a majority of Jews have always lived outside the land they call their own. They do so today.

Hebron is the site of the first recorded acquisition of land. Chapter 23 of the Book of Genesis describes  how Abraham, after the death of his wife Sarah, decised to purchase the Cave of Machpelah and the lands surrounding it. It is perhaps the first passage in the Bible which records an actual event, witnessed and described through a long chain of oral recitation. Abraham was what might now be termed an alien, though a resident of long standing in Hebron. To own land in that place he required not merely the power of purchase, but the public consent of the community. The land was owned by a dignitary called Ephron the Hittite, a semitic Habiru of Hittite origin.

Who was this Abraham and where did he come from? The Book of Genesis i sthe only evidence that he existed and it was written perhaps 1000 years after his supposed lifetime. The value of the Bible as a historical record has been a matter of intense argument for over 200 years.  Both Jewish and Christian have maintained for centuries that the early books of the Bible in particular contain many passages that should be understood as symbols or metaphor rather than literal fact. From the early decades of the 19th century, a new critical approach classified large parts as religious myth. These legends, scholars argued, were carefully edited and adapted to provide historical justification and divine sanction for the religious beliefs, practices and rituals of the Israelite establishment…. Increasingly scholars tend to assume that the text contains at least a germ of truth and see it as their business to cultivate it. This has not made the historical interpretation of the Bible any easier.

In our present state of knowledge, we must assume that the very earliest chapters of the Book of Genesis are symbolic rather than factual descriptions. What strikes one about the Jewish description of creation and early man, compared with pagan cosmogonies, is the lack of interest in the mechanics of how the world and its creatures came into existence, which led both Egyptian and Mesopotamian narrators into such weird contortions. The Jews simply assume the pre-existence of an omnipotent God, who acts but is never described or characterized, and so has the force and invisibility of nature itself. Not that the Jewish God is in any sense identified with nature: quit ethe contrary. Though always unvisualized, God [Yahweh] is presented in the most emphatic terms as a person….

The Biblical passages dealing with the Flood contain the first mention of a covenant and the earliest reference to the land of Canaan. We can now return to our question about Abraham’s identity and origin. The Bible says that Abraham migrated from ‘Ur of the Chaldeans’, first to Haran, then to various places in Canaan, traveling to Egypt in the time of famine but returning to Canaan and ending his days at Hebron where he made his first land purchase. There is no reason to doubt that Abraham came from Ur and this already tells us a lot about him, thanks to the Work of C. Leonard Woolley and his successors. To begin with it associated him with an important city, not the desert. The Ur Woolley excavated had a comparatively high level of culture. He found there a giant ziggurat, the temple raised on multiple platforms which, it is fair to conjecture, inspired the story of the Tower of Babel. This was the work of Ur-Nammu of the Third Dynasty (2060-1950 BC), a lawgiver and builder… It is likely that Abraham left Ur after the time of this king, and so carried within him to Canaan tales of the ziggurat to heaven as well as the much earlier Flood story.

At the end of the second millenium BC, civilized international society was disrupted by incursions from the East [now Israel and Jordan]. These invaders caused great trouble in Egypt. In settled Asia [Near East], archaeology reveals an absolute break in continuity in towns such as Byblos, Megiddo, Jericho, and old Gaza, indicating pillage and abandonment. A particular group of these people is refered to, in Mesopotamian tablets and inscrptions as Hapiru or Habiru. By this term they were not referring to desert-dwellers for they had a different term for that. Habiru seems to have been a term of abuse used for difficult and destructive non-city-dwellers who moved from place to place. Precisely because they were not easy to classify, they puzzeled and annoyed the conservative Egyptian authorities. They were donkey-folk who moved in caravan, or merchants. Sometimes they acquired considerable wealth in the form of flocks and followers, then they might endeavor to settle, acquire land and form petty kingships.

Abraham may perhaps be most accurately described as a henotheist: a believer in a sole God, attached to a particular people, who none the less recognized the attachment of other peoples to their own gods. With this qualification, he is the founder of the Hebrew religious culture, since he begins its two most important characteristics: the covenant (contract) with God and the donation of the Land. The notion of the Covenant is an extraordinary idea, with no parallel in the ancient Near East. A contract of obedience in return for special favor, implying for the first time in history the existence of an ethical God who acts as a kind of constitutional monarch bound by his own agreements.

The notion of the Promised Land — the land Yahweh promised to Abraham and His people — is peculiar to Israelite religion and for the Israelites it was the most important single element in it. It is the land that matters most.