Jews, Tribes, Trials and Tribulations

Please visit my author websiteJews, Tribes, Trials and Tribulations

Before I begin my discussion, I highly recommend The Historical Atlas of THE BIBLE: A visual Guide from Ancient Times to the NEW TESTAMENT: THE FASCINATING HISTORY OF THE SCRIPTURES by Dr. Ian Barns, to anyone interested in the history of religions which trace their origins to the Patriarch Abraham.

imageThe previous post posited the idea that socio-behavioral evolution selected for characteristics that enabled small hunter-gatherer groups to survive. It further implies that these are the same qualities that allow larger political units, like city-states, to develop and prosper. I also suggested religion in these civilizations was polytheistic with the exception of the Jews, but this oversimplification of history is consistent with the beliefs of the Judeo-Christian world, however less than accurate.

This map represents the tribal regions in Palestine before unification under Saul, the first king of a unified nation. This nation of the Israelites was formed about two centuries after the time of the exodus from Egypt in the mid to the latter part of the 13th Century BCE. Such maps as these imply that areas of Palestine were distributed to Jacob’s sons, who were twelve in number. Ten of Jacobs sons led ten of the tribes, and two carry the names of Josephs sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, which Jacob (Israel) had adopted. This was the extent of Palestine at the time of the Judges, who were the leaders in each of these tribal political zones of influence. This image of an organized nation reflects the Biblical record but belies the evidence of history.

Did Abram (Abraham after the covenant) exist? Perhaps! The Biblical record led archeologists to sites that represent settlements mentioned in the text of the Bible. There is also evidence of the wanderings of a group of nomadic/semi-nomadic peoples who left the region of Ur in ancient Sumer towards the very end of the late 3rd Millennium BCE. This wandering tribe of nomadic Semites, who may or may not have been led by a historical Abraham, travelled through the region of the Fertile Crescent to Egypt, then back to the land of the Canaanites. This wandering tribe or group of tribes, are the Hebrews) in search of a place to settle.

The biblically oriented view of the Patriarchs – (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph) – is as great leaders and founders of the Hebrew/Israelite nation. I tend to look at these leaders as pragmatic and politically astute individuals who shaped a peoples perspective on the nature of God. Each of them in their turn, built a foundation of an intellectually challenging and rational belief system that enabled the peoples who became the Jews to survive the trials and tribulation of history.

The individual identified as Abram (Abraham) was certainly a leader. He led his peoples from Ur to the Nile and back to the land of the Canaanites (also semi-nomadic Semitic peoples) to set up settlements in the part of the Fertile Crescent that received the most rainfall and had a fertile river valley included. This once wandering band of Semitic peoples now began to infiltrate the region and take over some of the Canaanite cities by force. Those Canaanites who played ball with the tribes following Abram became absorbed into the group, and those that didn’t met the fate of all conquered peoples who refuse to co-operate with the conquerors. There is no room for illusion or delusion here. The political masterstroke of the leader of these peoples was the single most important idea of this leader or cluster of leaders, and it all had to do with the beginnings of a monotheistic belief structure.

The principal god of the Canaanites was El. There were other gods to be sure, but El was the chief god amongst them. The word Elohim, which we find in the text of the Bible, simply meant gods. It is also possible that El was a god familiar to the wandering Semitic peoples led by Abraham. At this point in Abrams conquest, he conceives of an idea that is matched only by Saul of Tarsus (Paul), and his epiphany on the road to Damascus. Abram, desiring to grow his following, adopts El as the god of the Hebrews and now says that he is the one true God. Thus, it is possible to co-opt the people of Canaan who wished to join up with Abram’s followers. God also became portable and personal, which is important, because the Jews have literally wandered the globe throughout their history and have carried their idea of God with them.

The idea of one God was not easy to instill. Many pagan gods persisted among these early Hebrews, and that was fine, because leaders like Abraham knew that bold new ideas take time to become core beliefs for a group. Every time a new group of Canaanites were incorporated into the growing numbers of Abram’s followers, the proselytizing and conversions began again. The other master stroke of the leader we shall call Abram was to have a vision of God, establish a visible sign of the covenant (circumcision), and change his name to Abraham from Abram. The next problem for the leaders of this group of nascent monotheists was to eliminate human sacrifice. That was Abraham’s next task.

Abraham deals with the issue of human sacrifice by relating a story about how he was commanded by God to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. It was a test of loyalty. In the end, God saves Isaac from being sacrificed and offers a ram to be sacrificed in his place. The message was clear. Abraham let his followers know that God (El), did not approve of human sacrifice. Isaac takes Abraham’s place as patriarch, and besides his faithfulness to the God of the Hebrews, contributes two sons to the mix, Esau and Jacob. Although polygamy was an acceptable practice, he takes only one wife, which presages the idea of monogamy.

Jacob fathers twelve sons by three different wives. As the number of followers of the Hebrew God increases, it becomes a management issue. When a famine threatens the population, Jacob, his son’s and many of the Hebrew peoples go to Egypt. This, of course, becomes the story of Joseph. The Hebrew peoples manage to survive the famine and live in Egypt comfortably, increase in number, and settle in the area until the leadership changes. Joseph loses whatever political pull he had and the people are enslaved. By now, the Hebrew peoples are divided up into tribes led by the sons of Jacob.

The next great political leader of the Hebrews is Moses, who may or may not have been a Hebrew. It really doesn’t matter, because the exodus from Egypt had begun under the leadership of a man we call Moses. The Hebrew may have given up human sacrifice, but polytheism had not been completely extinguished. Moses’, with the support of the leaders of the Hebrew tribes, managed to work a deal that freed them from slavery. Thus began the return to Palestine. On the way, Moses ascends a mountain, stays for many days, and returns with the tablets containing the Ten Commandments. Another master stroke of political thinking.

Eventually, this large population of wandering Hebrews returns to Palestine under the leadership of ten of Jacob’s sons and Joseph’s sons who had been adopted by Jacob when Joseph died. The key thing to remember is that not all the Hebrews left for Egypt, and there was a population of Abrahamic Hebrews that were there when the Israelites who followed Moses out of Egypt arrived. The Patriarchs of the bible were astute political leaders who understood human nature. They understood the power of the idea of an invisible, ever present, personal God. They used some clever stories to bring those they led to monotheism and away from pagan beliefs. They also established a leadership structure that adjusted to the size and needs of the population they led.

The monotheism of the Hebrew/Israelites was the foundation for the Judeo-Christian world, and the Islamic peoples. It was also more than a religion. It was a political philosophy based in God (a theocracy) let by political and militarily capable men who are indeed Patriarchs (founders) of a people.

In my next post, I will address the development of the system rule by Judges, Kings and Clerics.

What do you think God would think of this post? Please comment…

Yours as always, your faithful blogger,

L Alan Weiss (Larry) – Author of Through a Lens of Emptiness: Reflections on Life, Longevity and Contentment

Please visit my author website at www.lalanweiss.com

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Filed under History of the Jewish People

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