Read an Excerpt
Eyewitness to Jewish History
By Benjamin Blech
John Wiley & SonsISBN: 0-471-46233-0
Chapter OneIn the Beginning
When does Jewish history begin?
The simple answer would seem to be: with the first Jew. But for some scholars that is unacceptable.
Jews look back to Abraham as their founding patriarch. They consider Jacob's twelve children, the children of Israel (Jacob's later-acquired name), the first Jewish family. They believe that the Jewish nation was formed in the chains of Egyptian bondage, followed by divine redemption.
But all of these events present historians with one major difficulty: aside from the Bible's account, they lack confirmation from any other sources. There are no records to validate the biblical report.
We have to remember, though, that the absence of documents corroborating the Bible's version hardly proves its unreliability. Writing at that time was a laborious and specialized task, usually performed by scribes and reserved for events of importance to kings and nobles, and most of the documents that were written on perishable material haven't survived the millennia. And perhaps most important of all, the very concept of history was not yet well understood or appreciated. People lived and died, and what happened to them, they thought, would probably be repeated in cyclical fashion forever. No need, then, to record events if there is never anything new under the sun.
As Thomas Cahill pointed out in his book The Gifts ofthe Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels, it is Jews who gave the world the very notion that life is a process of progression, a linear movement to ever greater heights, a notion that made the idea of history possible. For that reason the Bible told the story while the rest of the world remained silent. The Bible was the groundbreaking work that taught mankind to believe that the future could be different from the past and that remembering was important so that, as George Santayana put it, we won't be condemned to repeat the past.
Some historians, such as J. Alberto Soggin in his book The History of Ancient Israel: A Study in Some Questions of Method, feel that "objective historiography" demands that we begin the story of the Jewish people only when we move from biblical narrative to archeological discovery. But that would leave a huge gap in our knowledge even as it would ignore sacred texts and collective national consciousness.
For Soggin and his similarly minded colleagues, the answer to the old philosophical riddle is that a tree that fell in the forest with no man there to hear it didn't make any noise; an event unrecorded at the time, as far as they're concerned, didn't happen.
I find that view untenable. Historians may debate endlessly with theologians whether the Porgy and Bess lyrics are right and "It ain't necessarily so, De t'ings dat yo' li'ble, To read in de Bible, It ain't necessarily so." What is undeniable is that to the extent that history serves to cultivate collective memories, the Bible has achieved more than countless other recorded sources in that regard. David C. McCullough put it well when he wrote, "History is who we are and why we are the way we are." By that standard, surely the Bible is history.
That's why we won't begin this book, as Soggin would suggest, with the story of the united kingdom under David, when "the history of Israel leaves the realm of prehistory, of cultic and popular tradition, and enters the arena of history proper." We'll start with Abraham and tell the story the way many millions of people believe it really happened, and according to the best and the only account that we have for now.
Abraham Discovers God-and a Land
Here is how the Bible tells the story:
1: Now the Lord said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you.
2: And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.
3: I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves."
4: So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.
5: And Abram took Sar'ai his wife, and Lot his brother's son, and all their possessions which they had gathered, and the persons that they had gotten in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan,
6: Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land.
7: Then the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, "To your descendants I will give this land." So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him.
What the Bible doesn't tell us is why God suddenly chose Abraham as his messenger, worthy of divine blessing. Jewish tradition believes that before God chose Abraham, Abraham chose God! The story of man's discovery of monotheism is omitted; what we are told is merely the consequence of that momentous insight.
According to the Midrash, the oral transmission of biblical commentary recorded in Talmudic times, Abraham was led to belief in one God as a result of a sudden awareness, upon seeing a mansion, that just as a carefully constructed building must have had an architect, so too the complex and highly developed universe must be the product of an all-wise Creator. Philosophers and theologians would come to call this the proof from design, or the teleological argument.
Notice that in the initial encounter, Abraham is referred to as Abram. That's because it was only later, when God gave him the mission to spread his newfound belief around the world, that God changed his name to Abraham, a shortened version of the Hebrew phrase meaning "father of many nations."
The Covenant between God and Abraham
1: When Abram was ninety-nine years old the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, "I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless.
2: And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly."
3: Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him,
4: "Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations.
5: No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.
6: I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come forth from you.
7: And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you.
8: And I will give to you, and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God."
9: And God said to Abraham, "As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations."
God made his promise of the land of Canaan (Palestine/Israel) to Abraham's descendants contingent upon their faithfulness to the covenant. Is that the reason Jews were for so long expelled from their divinely promised land?
At the age of one hundred, Abraham fathered Isaac, to whom he transmitted God's blessings and promises. Isaac married Rebecca, and after a period of barrenness Rebecca gave birth to twins, Jacob and Esau. The boys were rivals for the blessings of their birthright-a rivalry that Jacob's descendants would later see as symbolic of their conflict with Rome and with Christianity, which was supposedly descended from Esau. Jacob was chosen to carry on the teachings of Abraham and Isaac. He was blessed with twelve children, who would go on to become the twelve tribes of Israel. Jacob loved Joseph, the firstborn of his beloved wife Rachel, more than the children he sired from his other wife, Leah, and those born to him from his two handmaidens.
1: Jacob dwelt in the land of his father's sojournings, in the land of Canaan.
2: This is the history of the family of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a lad with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father's wives; and Joseph brought an ill report of them to their father.
3: Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he made him a coat of many colors.
4: But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.
Joseph's favored status in the eyes of his father, as well as his grandiose dreams, inspired envy and hatred. In a shocking act of cruelty toward their own kin, his brothers cast him into a pit and then sold him into slavery. Joseph ended up in Egypt, where his talents and his ability to interpret dreams allowed him to rise to the highest position in the land, next to Pharaoh. Joseph was richly honored for his understanding of economic cycles, as well as for his plan that allowed Egypt to prepare for the projected seven years of famine.
Interpreting the Dreams of Pharaoh
25: Then Joseph said to Pharaoh, "The dream of Pharaoh is one; God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do.
26: The seven good cows are seven years, and the seven good ears are seven years; the dream is one.
27: The seven lean and gaunt cows that came up after them are seven years, and the seven empty ears blighted by the east wind are also seven years of famine.
28: It is as I told Pharaoh, God has shown to Pharaoh what he is about to do.
29: There will come seven years of great plenty throughout all the land of Egypt,
30: but after them there will arise seven years of famine, and all the plenty will be forgotten in the land of Egypt; the famine will consume the land,
31: and the plenty will be unknown in the land by reason of that famine which will follow, for it will be very grievous.
32: And the doubling of Pharaoh's dream means that the thing is fixed by God, and God will shortly bring it to pass.
33: Now therefore let Pharaoh select a man discreet and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt.
34: Let Pharaoh proceed to appoint overseers over the land, and take the fifth part of the produce of the land of Egypt during the seven plenteous years.
35: And let them gather all the food of these good years that are coming, and lay up grain under the authority of Pharaoh for food in the cities, and let them keep it.
36: That food shall be a reserve for the land against the seven years of famine which are to befall the land of Egypt, so that the land may not perish through the famine."
The Nile's Seven-Year Cycles
From an Egyptian document (purportedly 28th century B.C.E.)
Year 18 of the Horus: Netjer-er-khet; the King of Upper and Lower Egypt: Netjer-er-khet; the Two Godesses: Netjer-er-khet; the Horus of Gold: Djoser, and under the Count, Mayor, Royal Acquaintance, and Overseer of Nubians in Elephantine, Madir. There was brought to him this royal decree:
To let thee know. I was in distress on the Great Throne and those who are in the palace were in heart's affliction from a very great evil, since the Nile had not come in my time for a space of seven years. Grain was scant, fruits were dried up, and everything which they eat was short. Every man robbed his companion. They moved without going [ahead]. The infant was wailing; the youth was waiting; the heart of the old men was in sorrow, their legs were bent, crouching on the ground, their arms were folded. The courtiers were in need. The temples were shut up; the sanctuaries held [nothing but]air. Every [thing] was found empty. James Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, Princeton, N.J., 1969
Joseph's economic plan allowed Egypt to prosper while the countries around it suffered from starvation. Joseph's family was forced to come to Egypt to purchase food. While the brothers no longer recognized the young boy they had so mistreated, Joseph knew they were his family and eventually forgave them. The family of Israel settled in Goshen, a separate area, and were at first welcomed, but with the passage of time all of Joseph's contributions to Egypt were forgotten.
6: Then Joseph died, and all his brothers, and all that generation.
7: But the descendants of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong; so that the land was filled with them.
8: Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.
9: And he said to his people, "Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us.
10: Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply, and, if war befall us, they join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land."
11: Therefore they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with heavy burdens; and they built for Pharaoh store-cities, Pithom and Ra-am'ses.
12: But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad. And the Egyptians were in dread of the people of Israel.
13: So they made the people of Israel serve with rigor,
14: and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field; in all their work they made them serve with rigor.
Joseph's brothers sinned by selling him into slavery. Not too many years later, Jews collectively suffered the very same fate, as they were forced into slavery in Egypt. There is a rabbinic belief that divine retribution follows a pattern called "measure for measure." What other incidents from the Bible support or disprove this? What about incidents from your life?
The First Plague of Blood
God appeared to Moses in a burning bush that miraculously was not consumed-a vivid message meant to prophesy the miraculous survival of the Jewish people in the future. Moses was instructed to command Pharaoh to "let my people go." When Pharaoh refused, Egypt was smitten with a series of ten plagues, culminating in the death of Egyptian firstborn children. Compare the account in Exodus with an Egyptian writing that some scholars think may be from the period when the events described in Exodus might have occurred.]
Excerpted from Eyewitness to Jewish History by Benjamin Blech Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.