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 began to change 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 in the area. That 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 several gods and goddesses worshipped in Canaan. At first, El was the supreme deity in the Canaanite belief system. The goddess Asherah was his wife.1 The new small states in the area 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, Molek was the deity of Ammon, while Moab had Chemosh to defeat its foes and supply the country with blessings.2

The worship of Yahweh may have become the state religion in Judah and possibly Israel but people still worshipped other gods. The Hebrew Bible testifies of tensions between those who worshipped other deities alongside Yahweh and those insisting on worshipping Yahweh alone. Those insisting on worshipping Yahweh alone, still believed that the other gods existed. As Yahweh had become the primary deity, El became a generic word for god, and Asherah then became Yahweh’s wife.

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. Others moved 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, a family with common ancestors. The Hebrew Bible became a compilation of existing tales from these communities and the royal archives of Judah.3

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.

At the same time, Judaism gradually became monotheist under the influence of Zoroastrianism. The prophet Zoroaster believed in a single good creator god and an opposite evil power. The Jews probably were henotheists at first, which means that they believed in other gods but only 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 has a henotheist perspective. Zoroastrianism was widespread in the Middle East. This religion influenced Judaism by bringing in monotheism, messiahs, free will, heaven and 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. Judah probably had royal archives, so several writings date from centuries before the Hebrew Bible was compiled. There is however no evidence for the historical account of the Hebrew Bible from before the kingdoms of Judah and Israel. The first chapters of Genesis resemble previously extant Mesopotamian myths. Moses most likely never led the Israelites out of Egypt. Israel and Judah may have been united under the reign of David and Solomon but this united kingdom could also have been invented to promote unity. It made the inhabitants in the area all descend from one great nation. And before that, history becomes truly murky. No written records exist from these times. The tales about Abraham, Isaac, and Moses may have been legends from different communities merged into one narrative to promote a single Jewish nation.3

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

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. 1 Kings 11:7
3. The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose, and Political Future. Wright, Jacob L. (2014). Coursera.

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