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'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 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.
- Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
- Thou shalt make unto thee no graven images to worship.
- Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.
- Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.
- Honor thy father and mother.
- Thou shalt not murder.
- Thou shalt not commit adultery.
- Thou shalt not steal.
- Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
- 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.
The books of Samuel and Kings record the ascent of the first kings of Israel (Saul, David and Solomon), and there is evidence that King David at least might have actually existed. Several books of the Nevi'im record the oppression of the Hebrews by various peoples, pretty much all of whom have been matched to real civilizations, whose own records often validate the Hebrew account.
The Jewish People: A History of Oppression
Between the books of the Nevi'im and the efforts of modern archaeologists, we know that the Hebrews fell under the control of many empires over the years, including the Babylonians, Assyrians, Philistines, Moabites, Syrians and Romans. Some of these conquerors were quite intent on wiping out the Hebrew people and their faith. Both the Assyrians and Babylonians made a practice of relocating conquered peoples from their homelands into somewhere deep within the empire.
By doing so, they hoped to break down those people's cultural identity and assimilate them as Assyrians or Babylonians. Yet, the faith and identity of the Hebrews withstood these attempts. The Hebrews considered these periods of oppression and captivity as God's punishment for their disobedience. They maintained their faith despite the best efforts of their oppressors. In a time when so many other faiths and peoples were absorbed into great empires, the survival of the Hebrews and their faith as a distinct people is actually quite remarkable. The persistence of the Jewish faith can be directly attributed to the factors we noted at the beginning of this lesson.
The Hebrews had one God and refused to worship the gods of their conquerors. The Hebrews refused to conform to the society of their conquerors. Their steadfast faith in a single God kept their religion untainted, and their refusal to marry non-Jews helped them maintain their ethnic identity.
Yet, most importantly, the Jews had a holy book containing all the wisdom, laws and beliefs of their culture. While other, less literate religions might change with the times, the Jewish religion was preserved in writing.
The Impact of Jewish Oppression on the Modern World
Yet, this constant oppression did not leave Judaism totally unchanged. We can see its mark in the continued Jewish desire to reclaim their homeland, a movement known today as Zionism. We can read the tale of oppression in Jewish rituals, like the Passover Seder, commemorating their slavery in Egypt, and the Hanukkah menorah, which recalls the Jewish revolt against the Seleucid Empire.
Yet, perhaps the clearest impact of oppression upon the Jews is the Jewish prophesy of the Messiah, a savior who would rescue the Jews from oppression and restore them to the glory God promised Abraham so long ago. In the beginning of the Common Era, many Jews thought they'd found their Messiah in Jesus and established the Christian religion.
Some Jews branched off to form Christianity and Islam, but the majority preserved Judaism.
Later, the peoples of the Arabian Peninsula would further adapt the Jewish faith to found Islam. Yet, the majority of Jews remained true to the original covenant between God and Abraham, preserving the ancient faith of Judaism to this day.
Following this lesson, you'll be able to:
- Summarize the history and distinguishing characteristics of the Hebrew religion
- Describe the importance of the Hebrews' ancient writings
- Recount the story of Moses and the Ten Commandments
- Explain where science supports and discounts the ancient Jewish texts
- Identify examples of Jewish oppression