Monday, March 26, 2007

The Origins of Judaism

Ancient Israel was not, in other words, a material suc­cess. Its people were never numerous or rich, and it was only briefly a regional power. Its contributions to art and technology were negligible, yet few societies have had a greater influence on those that followed. The rea­son for this paradox is that the Jews developed a reli­gion that was unlike anything else in the ancient world. It was not wholly without precedent, for ideas were borrowed from Mesopotamian and perhaps from Egyptian sources. Moreover, though inspired by revela­tions that can be dated with some accuracy, its basic practices evolved over time. But if the history of the be­liefs themselves can be traced like those of any other religion, the Jewish concept of the divine was neverthe­less revolutionary.
Its central feature was a vision of one God who was indivisible and who could not be represented or under­stood in visual terms. Yahweh, the God of the Jews, could not be described. The name is formed from the Hebrew word YHWH and appears to be a derivative of the verb “to be,” indicating that the deity is eternal and changeless. Creator of the universe and absolute in power, the God of Israel was at the same time a per­sonal god who acted in history and who took an inter­est in the lives of individual Jews.
Above all, the worship of Yahweh demanded ethi­cal behavior on the part of the worshipper. This was ex­traordinary, because though the Mesopotamians had emphasized the helplessness of humans and Akhenaton had thought of a single, all-powerful god, the idea that a god might be served by good deeds as well as by rit­ual and sacrifice was new. The concept was founded on the idea of a covenant or agreement made first between God and Abraham and reaffirmed at the time of the ex­odus from Egypt (see document 1.4).
The people of Israel formally reaffirmed the covenant on several occasions, but failure to observe it could bring terrible punishment. The fall of Jerusalem to Nebuchedrezzar was thought to be an example of what could happen if the Jews lapsed in their devotion, and a rich prophetic tradition developed that called upon the people of Israel to avoid God’s wrath by be­having in an ethical manner. The Jews thus became the first people to write long narratives of human events as opposed to mere chronologies and king lists. Much of the Jewish Bible is devoted to the interaction between God and the children of Israel and is intended to pro­vide a record of God’s judgments on Earth to discern the divine will. Therefore, while not history as the

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