when Jews became Jews

DISCLAIMER

I am not a Torah scholar or Biblical historian. My expertise is secular Jewish history. My intention in this post is not to “debunk” the wisdom and narrative of the Torah; quite the opposite: I consider the Torah the “origin story” of the Jewish People, similar to how other Indigenous Peoples worldwide have origin stories or mythologies of how they came to be.

I am interested in approaching ancient Jewish history through the lens of archeology and place it within the context of world history. I am trying to understand — from a secular Jewish lens — where I come from and what the lives of my ancestors were like.

 

THE CANAANITES

The Canaanites were a group of ancient, Semitic-speaking cultures in the region of the Southern Levant (modern-day Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and parts of Syria and Lebanon), which they collectively called “Canaan,” some 6500-3000 years ago.

The vast majority of Canaanite cultures have long ceased to exist. Hebrew — the ancestral language of the Jewish People — is the only Canaanite language still spoken today. The rest of the Canaanite languages, including Phoenician, Ammonite, Moabite, and Edomite, are now long extinct.

Archaeologically and linguistically-speaking, it’s well-established that the Israelites emerged from Indigenous Canaanite tribes; interestingly, however, the Hebrew G-d does not have Canaanite origins, but rather, likely came from Egypt, which is what I want to explore in this post.

Tensions arose between the Canaanites that practiced monotheism and those who worshipped multiple gods, which corroborates the narrative of the Torah, which depicts the Israelites and the Canaanites as enemies.

 

JEWS & OUR ANCESTORS

Jews are an ethnoreligious group, a tribe, and a nation originating in the Land of Israel, descended from the ancient Hebrews and Israelites. An ethnoreligious group is an ethnic group unified by a common religion. In the case of the Jewish People, the religion is Judaism. Much like other Indigenous tribes worldwide, Jewish peoplehood, tribal identity, and religion/spirituality (Judaism) are inextricable from each other.

The Hebrews were a group of Semitic-speaking, often nomadic peoples Indigenous to Canaan. The Israelites were a confederation of Hebrew tribes that came together eventually to found the United Monarchy of the Kingdom of Israel (1047 BCE-930 BCE). While there is archeological and historical debate regarding the grandiosity of the United Monarchy as depicted in the Torah, there is enough archeological evidence to assume that a centralised Israelite state existed during this period.

To reiterate: Jews are descended from the Israelites, who were in turn descended from the Hebrew tribes. Samaritans, our closest ethnoreligious cousins, are also descended from the Israelites and Hebrews but are not Jews. All of this is extensively corroborated by historical, genetic, and archeological record.

 

EXODUS IN THE TORAH

Due to a severe famine, many Israelites migrate to Egypt. When the Pharaoh of Egypt starts to worry that the Israelites will outnumber his people, he enslaves them, and decrees that all of their newborn sons must be tossed into the Nile. After Yocheved gives birth to a son, Moses, she puts him in a basket and releases him into the flow of the Nile. Pharaoh’s daughter finds him and adopts him.

Moses grows up believing that he is Egyptian. When he is older, G-d appears to him behind a burning bush and commands that Moses tell the Pharaoh to let the Israelites go.

When Pharaoh says no, G-d unleashes ten plagues. During the tenth plague, G-d strikes down on every Egyptian firstborn. After Pharaoh’s son is killed, he agrees to let the Israelites go; however, he quickly changes his mind and his army chases after the Israelites, who are trapped by the Red Sea. Moses, through the power of G-d, parts the Red Sea.

The Israelites wander the desert for 40 years before reaching the Land of Israel. During this period, Moses goes up Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments.

 

CANAANITES & THE HEBREW G-D

The Canaanites practiced polytheism and had a plethora of deities, which they divided into a four-tier hierarchy. It’s worth noting that different Canaanite cultures worshipped different gods in the Canaanite pantheon. The two most important Canaanite deities were El and Asherah. Today, the generic Hebrew word for “god” (as opposed to THE G-d) is “El.”

Similarly, many Hebrew words come directly from the names of various Canaanite deities. For instance, the Hebrew word for sky is “shamayim.” Shamayim was the “god of the heavens.”

As mentioned previously, the Hebrew G-d, YHWH, was not in the Canaanite pantheon. There are various theories as to how, exactly, YHWH ended up in Canaan, but the most popular view is that the deity was brought to Canaan along the Egypt-Israel caravan route. As you will remember, according to the Torah narrative, it was on the journey from Egypt to the Land of Israel that the Israelites received the Ten Commandments, and, as such, became Jews. The fact that YHWH came from the Egypt-Israel caravan route provides a plausible historical explanation for the folkloric origins of the story of Moses as depicted in Exodus.

 

YAHWISM VS JUDAISM

Today, the religion of the Jewish People is known as Judaism. It’s precursor was “Yahwism,” whose followers only worshiped the Hebrew G-d but didn’t necessarily reject the existence of the rest of the Canaanite pantheon.

Initially, YHWH was only one of the many deities that the Israelites worshipped. El, the most important Canaanite god, was the original “god of Israel,” the name Israel itself deriving from El (“Israel” roughly translates to “one who wrestles with G-d”). Over time, YHWH and the other gods merged into a singular G-d.

The complete shift between Yahwism to Judaism, when all Jews completely rejected the existence of other deities, likely happened during the period of the Babylonian Exile (587/6 BCE), which is when the majority of the Tanakh (“Hebrew Bible”) was written. However, this shift happened slowly and over time, beginning around the 9th century BCE. In the 8th century BCE, monotheism among the Israelites spread even further, likely as a nationalistic response to the Neo-Assyrian invasions.

 

ARCHEOLOGICAL EXODUS 

Historians have hotly debated the veracity of the story of Exodus for centuries. The Egyptians kept no record of any Israelite tribe living among them, whether enslaved or not, but historians have pointed to several interesting points.

(1) the names of the cities where the Israelites encamped on their way to Canaan are corroborated by Egyptian sources; (2) the tomb of a likely Hebrew advisor to the Pharaoh was found in the 1800s; and (3) there are similarities between the (Semitic) name of a slave in an Egyptian papyrus to the name of a Hebrew slave in the Torah (Hebrew is a Semitic language, whereas Coptic/Ancient Egyptian is not).

An alternate historical perspective is that a small group of Semitic peoples traveled to and from Egypt in ancient times. One of these groups were the Levites — and Moses was a Levite. Many of the names in Exodus — including Moses — are Egyptian names.

It’s possible that the Levites departed Egypt and later joined the other Israelite tribes. The Levites, for example, emphasised that the Israelites must not mistreat foreigners. They were also the only tribe that spoke of male circumcision, which was an Egyptian practice.

 

JUDAISM

In 930 BCE, the United Monarchy of the Kingdom of Israel split into the Kingdom of Israel to the north (Samaria) and the Kingdom of Judah to the south. In 720 BCE, the Neo-Assyrian Empire conquered the northern Kingdom of Israel, exiling its residents and prompting others to flee to the southern Kingdom of Judah.

As mentioned in a prior slide, it was during the Neo-Assyrian invasions that complete monotheism — that is, the complete rejection of the very existence of other gods — spread among the Israelites. This likely happened as a nationalistic response, as the Assyrians themselves were polytheistic.

In 587/6 BCE, the Neo-Babylonian Empire conquered and exiled about 25 percent of the citizens of the Kingdom of Judah. Most historians agree that the vast majority of the Tanakh (“Hebrew Bible”) was written during the period of the Babylonian Exile. This marks the complete shift from Yahwism to Judaism.

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