Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Tribes of Israel

The foundational story of the people who came to be known as Israel begins with the story of Abraham’s family. His only son Isaac (“he who laughs”) was the father of Jacob, who in turn was the father of twelve sons whose names became the identifying names of the twelve tribes of Israel:  Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph and Benjamin.

Of course, we are omitting two things.

First, Isaac’s other son, Esau, the twin brother who sold his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of pottage (Gen. 25:29–34). Again, a patriarch must connive to succeed, he must have in mind his destiny. One of the meanings of Jacob’s name is “leg puller.”

Second, Jacob had two wives at the same time; in fact, they were sisters. One was Leah, who had tender eyes, the other the younger sister Rachel, who was “lovely in form and beautiful” (the full story is in Genesis 29); and at least one daughter. Leah gave him the first six patriarchs, Rachel the second six, plus the only daughter mentioned, Dinah, who is not deemed a matriarch of a tribe. Indeed, Dinah is raped and her brothers avenged her by the sword.

Side elements of the story support the modern scholarly speculation that, contrary to the worst of European prejudices, the people of Israel were a multiethnic nation from almost the very beginning. Dinah’s rapists were men who wish to join the tribe and the brothers set upon them when they are recovering from circumcision.

The story, of course, anticipates many lurid stories of rape and abuse against women, who were essentially chattel. Jacob had to work for Rachel’s father to be able to effectively buy her and marry her. This is, of course, the pre-Mosaic faith before the Ten Commandments.

These are sometimes shocking stories. My own grandmother exclaimed that the Bible was far too lurid a book for a child of 11, the age at which I first received a copy of my own. However, the stories have a common theme found in the name Israel, which means “persevere with God.”

Friday, August 9, 2013


Any summary of the story of the Chosen People has to begin, necessarily, in the Chaldean city of Ur, located in the Mesopotamia (or land between two rivers) in what today is Iraq. In that city lived a man named Abram who struck God’s fancy, so to speak.

At the time he was chosen to be the father of a great people, his wife was beyond childbearing age. One of the great wonders sealing the pledge, the “testament” or pact, between Abram and God, was the birth of Isaac to Sarah. The story is prototypical of many of the great “patriarchs,” or fatherly leaders in the Hebrew Bible.

Abram is renamed Abraham, in consonance with the importance of naming as a sign of power and submission. Parents name children. God names Abraham when the patriarch is chosen for his singular mission.

The power of naming is why the name of God—the Tetragrammaton or four-letter word (transliterated from Hebrew as YHWH)—was held to be sacred, unwritable, unspeakable unless absolutely necessary. To use it would be to assume undue power and familiarity with God, according to the rabbis.

Beyond the naming, there were a set of singular signs of the special relationship. For example, the command to circumcise all males.

There’s also the moral test: Do you obey God so thoroughly that if God tells you to do something unthinkably painful and repulsive you will do it anyway? God asks Abraham to kill his only son, Isaac, the beloved child of his old age. Abraham gets to the point of complying when God stops him.

The story is about obedience, but it had an additional message for the people who first heard it and retold it. They were, after all, people familiar with human sacrifice in the religions and cults around them. In the Genesis story of Abraham, the Bible teaches that the one true God does not demand human sacrifice; God ends them with the order to Abraham to put down his sword.

Leonard Cohen composed a beautiful song about it, “The Story of Isaac.” Click here to hear and see a video of it performed by Cohen himself.

God promises Abraham that he will be the father of a nation more numerous than the stars. Then God takes up a plan Abraham had been hatching with his father-in-law, to move to a new place, and transforms it into the quintessential journey to what would become the Jewish ancestral home.

Friday, August 2, 2013

History of the Chosen People

The next large body of biblical writings are the historical books. These are, with variations according to the collection: Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, 2 Kings, 1 Chronicles, 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Tobit, Judith, Esther, 1-4  Maccabees.

These books of the Bible tell the ancient history of the Chosen People, the Jews, as collected by scribes and editors through the second century BCE.1

You may ask what any of this has to do with thee and me. To the Jewish faith it enshrines key elements in the history of the collective relationship of Jews with God. To modern Gentile Christians it provides historical context to what the Galilean carpenter was talking about; he wasn't talking about our modern culture, he was talking about the received faith story of his hearers and his people.

Biblical faith stands out in that it is mostly a story with implications. In the next few posts, I'll try to summarize it, to provide an overview that you are invited to explore on your own.

1. BCE (before the common era) and CE (common era) are the modern and tolerant form of BC (Before Christ) and AD (Anno Domini, or year of the Lord), that is least offensive to any religion. Oddly enough, modern biblical studies tend to place the actual birth of Jesus of Nazareth in the summer of the year 6 before our era, which makes BCE a more reasonable nomenclature.