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The Hebrews and Their Beliefs

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  • 0:05 Essentials of the Hebrew Faith
  • 1:46 The Torah
  • 8:54 Historical…
  • 10:33 The Jewish People: A…
  • 12:25 Impact of Jewish…
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Max Pfingsten
This lesson covers the Hebrews and their beliefs. We look at the core tenets of Judaism and explore some of the stories from the Torah. Finally, we see how the Hebrews' history of oppression impacted their religion and the world today.

Essentials of the Hebrew Faith

The Hebrew religion, known today as Judaism, is one of the oldest religions on Earth, with a written history stretching back over 3,000 years. Though some ancient religions predate Judaism, few of them survived to the modern age, and only Hinduism can cite a longer, continuous written history.

Dating back over 3,000 years, Judaism is one of the oldest religions.
Judaism Age

Judaism's persistence through the ages can be attributed to several of the distinguishing features of this ancient religion.

Judaism is monotheistic; it worships a single God.

Judaism is both a religious identity and an ethnic identity. Jews believe themselves to be God's chosen people and trace their lineage to a common ancestor, Abraham. These factors all contributed to Judaism's endurance through the ages. By worshiping a single God and by refusing to adopt the customs of their neighbors, Judaism avoided the blending of religions, or syncretism, that changed so many other religions of its age.

Yet, perhaps the most important factor in Judaism's persistence, and indisputably the defining feature of Judaism, is that Judaism has a holy text to preserve its beliefs, laws and history.

The Torah

The Jewish holy text, or Tanakh, is not a single book, but rather a collection of books written over a thousand years. These books have all found their way into the Old Testament of the Christian Bible, though in a slightly different order. Jews divide the books of the Tanakh into three groups: The Torah, The Nevi'im and the Ketuvim. The foremost of these is the Torah.

These five books contain the core of Jewish belief. They explain the origins of the Jewish people, their faith, their prophets and their laws. Let us take a quick trek through the tales of the Torah and see what we can learn about this ancient religion.

Let us begin in the beginning. Unlike the Sumerians, who believed the universe was created when Marduk cut his mother apart, or the Greeks, who thought the universe arose through sex, the Hebrews thought the universe was created through words. God created the world by speaking it into existence. He said, 'Let there be light', and there was light. This establishes the importance of words in the Jewish faith, a theme that recurs time and time again.

God also created the first man and the first woman, Adam and Eve. God put Adam and Eve in a beautiful paradise where their every need was taken care of. His only rule was that they should not eat a certain fruit. Eve was tempted to eat this fruit, and Eve tempted Adam to eat the fruit, and God got mad, and the two were cast out of paradise.

This establishes a pattern that will repeat time and time again in the Torah: God gives a commandment to man. Man disobeys, usually through temptation of the flesh. God punishes man.

Another trend that we see in the Jewish faith is God's selection of a chosen person. The God of the Torah seems generally disgusted with the world, but he occasionally finds someone who is faithful. Yet, being God's chosen one involves a lot of work and a lifetime of obedience. God's gifts are not free. He requires sacrifice on the part of his believers.

Nowhere is this message clearer than in the story of Abraham. God promised to make Abraham the father of a great and numerous people. All Abraham had to do was obey God in all things. This seemed like a great deal to Abraham, who agreed, but then God asked Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac.

Not only was God asking Abraham to murder his own child in cold blood, but God's commandment flew directly in the face of his promise to Abraham. How was Abraham supposed to be the father of a great people if he killed his only offspring? Yet, Abraham obeyed God's commandment, even if he did not understand it.

And, as Abraham raised the knife to kill his own son, God knew He had found His man, someone who would obey without question. At the last moment, God sent an angel to stop Abraham, providing a goat to sacrifice instead. This is the birth of the covenant between God and the Hebrew people.

Abraham's son, Isaac, had two sons, Jacob and Esau. Jacob, also known as Israel, had 12 sons: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Naphtali, Issachar, Asher, Dan, Zebulon, Gad, Judah, Joseph and Benjamin. These sons became the fathers of the Tribes of Israel. Driven by famine from their native land, Jacob and his sons found their way to Egypt.

And, after a few generations, the children of Israel found themselves the slaves of the Egyptian Pharaoh. Generations later, God sent His prophet, Moses, to free His people from slavery. After a series of plagues and miracles, Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt. Safe and free at last, Moses brought the children of Israel to Mount Sinai.

Moses ascended the mountain to commune with God, and God gave Moses Ten Commandments, carving them into stone with His own finger. These Ten Commandments would form the heart of Jewish law.

I am the Lord thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

  1. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
  2. Thou shalt make unto thee no graven images to worship.
  3. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.
  4. Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.
  5. Honor thy father and mother.
  6. Thou shalt not murder.
  7. Thou shalt not commit adultery.
  8. Thou shalt not steal.
  9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
  10. Thou shalt not covet.

Yet, even as Moses was up on the mountain receiving God's laws, the children of Israel were down in the valley breaking every one of them. They constructed a golden calf to worship and were carrying on in a manner unbecoming of God's chosen people. Let's just say coveting was the least of it. God punished the Hebrews by refusing to let them enter the Promised Land until the entire generation of sinners died out.

And so, He sent Moses and his people wandering the desert for 40 years. While they were wandering, God used Moses to begin establishing the laws and religion of the Hebrew people. Moses wrote hundreds of laws ranging from political advice ('If you take fabric from an enemy, you should boil it before you use it') to moral codes ('If a boy disobeys his father, he shall be stoned') to dietary restrictions ('Don't eat shellfish or pork').

Moses also divided the Israelites up into their 12 tribes and established a hierarchy to manage their concerns. He chose his brother to be the high priest of God and established his descendants as the priestly tribe of Israel. Finally, Moses set down the forms of Hebrew worship. He instructed them to build a tent to serve as the house of God.

Concealed within the tent was the Hebrews' greatest treasure, the Ark of the Covenant, which contained the original Ten Commandments written by God himself. The Hebrews considered the fate of their people closely tied to the Ark and its contents. It is important to note that rather than worshiping an idol of God, the Hebrews instead worshiped the words of God.

Historical Interpretation of Jewish Texts

Modern historians are at odds as to what to make of the Torah. On the one hand, there is no evidence that the Hebrew people were ever in Egypt; and though the Hebrews attributed these books to Moses, modern scholars have identified as many as four different authors of the Torah.

On the other hand, the authors of the Torah were still quite ancient, some of them dating back as far as 900 BCE; and while the Torah's account might not be accurate from a strictly historical perspective, it certainly tells us a great deal about the ancient Hebrews and their beliefs.

There is less ambiguity about some of the later books in the Tanakh. The Nevi'im, or books of prophets, recount the history of the Jewish people after entering the Promised Land. Unlike the Torah, many of these stories can be backed up with archaeological evidence.

For instance, the book of Joshua records the conquest of Israel under the leadership of Moses' successor, Joshua. The account mentions several cities that archaeologists have since uncovered, including the famous walled city of Jericho, which remains one of the oldest walled cities we've ever found, though we've yet to find any trumpets.

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