Building a nation with religion

The Israelites started as a tribe in Canaan, much like other tribes living there. For a long time, the area was under Egyptian control. That changed after 1150 BC. Egypt was beset by droughts, food shortages, civil unrest, corruption, and endless bickering in the court, causing it to retreat from Canaan. Agriculture was the basis of existence, which required territorial defence, hence states. In the resulting power vacuum, several petty kingdoms emerged. Israel and Judah were among them. This situation lasted until new imperial powers emerged on the scene four centuries later.

Map of Israel and Judah
The kingdoms of Canaan

Yahweh was one of the gods and goddesses worshipped in Canaan. The people in the area were polytheists. At first, El was the supreme deity in the Canaanite belief system, and the goddess Asherah was his wife.1 The new small states needed religion to justify their existence. The kings of Judah, and perhaps also Israel, promoted a national religion around Yahweh to solidify their authority. Other kingdoms in the region had adopted national deities too. For instance, Milcom was the deity of Ammon, while Moab had Chemosh to defeat its foes and supply the country with blessings (1 Kings 11:33).

Yahweh thus became the deity of the state religion in Judah and possibly Israel. Several parts of the Hebrew Bible originate from this era. People still worshipped other gods. The Hebrew Bible testifies to tensions between those who held on to other deities alongside Yahweh and those insisting on worshipping Yahweh alone. As Yahweh had become the deity of the Israelites, El became a generic word for god, and Asherah became Yahweh’s wife. Records of Jews living in Egypt testify of this.

As time passed by, new empires arrived on the scene. Israel was overrun in 720 BC by the Assyrians. The Babylonians conquered Judah in 597 BC after taking over the Assyrian Empire. The Babylonians destroyed the country and deported many of its inhabitants while others fled to Egypt. The Jewish communities in Egypt, Babylon, and Judah became dispersed. The authors of the Hebrew Bible responded to the situation by reconnecting them and showing that they share a common heritage. They belonged to a larger group, a nation or tribe, a family with common ancestors. The Hebrew Bible thus became a compilation of existing tales from these communities and the royal archives of Judah.2

After the Persians conquered the Babylonian Empire, Emperor Cyrus the Great allowed the Jews to return to Israel. He commissioned the rebuilding of the Jewish temple. Those still living in the area opposed this plan, and a political struggle unfolded. After seven decades, Ezra and Nehemiah finally succeeded in rebuilding the temple. At the time, Jewish society was on the brink of being wiped out. Israel and Judah did no longer exist. The remaining Jews were mixing with the surrounding population. Jewish leaders had to find a way to keep their people together. The editors of the Hebrew Bible aimed to preserve Jewish identity around a common religion, history and cultural heritage.

Meanwhile, Judaism gradually became monotheist under the influence of Zoroastrianism. The prophet Zoroaster believed in a good creator, an opposing evil power. The Jews probably were henotheists at first. They believed in other gods but worshipped Yahweh. It is expressed, for example, in the commandment that ‘you shall have no other gods before me’ rather than ‘you shall believe there is only one God.’ Most of the Hebrew Bible still has a henotheist perspective. Zoroastrianism was widespread in the Middle East. It shaped Judaism by bringing monotheism, messiahs, free will, heaven, hell, and Satan. Zoroastrianism not only affected Judaism. Some of the Greek philosophers around 400 BC were also monotheists.

The Hebrew Bible emerged under the reign of five successive empires: the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Hellenistic Rulers, and the Roman Empire. Little evidence supports the historical account in the Hebrew Bible about the time before the kingdoms of Judah and Israel. There may have been a united kingdom under the reign of David and Solomon, but it could be a fiction invented to promote unity. It made the inhabitants in the area all descend from one great nation. Before that, history becomes murky. No written records exist from these times. The tales about Abraham, Isaac, and Moses may have been legends from different communities merged into a single narrative to promote a single Jewish nation.3

The survival of the Jewish people has been hanging by a thread for a long time. After more than 2,500 years, the Jews are still around, so their nation-building project proved a successful long-term survival strategy. They even managed to reclaim their original homeland. It is also remarkable that Judaism stood at the cradle of Christianity and Islam. The Jews have played a central role in world history. It is an impressive feat considering their numbers. And so, the Jews may be God’s chosen people after all.

Latest revision: 29 March 2022

Featured image: Torah scroll (public domain)

1. “El the God of Israel-Israel the People of YHWH: On the Origins of Ancient Israelite Yahwism”. In Becking, Bob; Dijkstra, Meindert; Korpel, Marjo C.A.; et al. Only One God?: Monotheism in Ancient Israel and the Veneration of the Goddess Asherah. Dijkstra, Meindert (2001).
2. The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose, and Political Future. Wright, Jacob L. (2014). Coursera.

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