An Anthropology of the Jews
A sweeping and original history of the Jewish experience that is "nothing less than inspiring." (The New York Times Book Review)
Far reaching, intellectually rich, and passionately written, Unsettled takes the whole history of Western civilization as its canvas and places onto it the Jewish people and faith. With historical insight and vivid storytelling, renowned anthropologist Melvin Konner charts how the Jews endured largely hostile (but at times accepting) cultures to shape the world around them and make their mark throughout history—from the pastoral tribes of the Bronze Age to enslavement in the Roman Empire, from the darkness of the Holocaust to the creation of Israel and the flourishing of Jews in America. With fresh interpretations of the antecedents of today’s pressing conflicts, Unsettled is a work whose modern-day reverberations could not be more relevant or timely.
But this is no conventional Jewish history. It makes no claim to thorough coverage of events and leaders—the standard succession of wars and treaties, speeches and conventions, is not the point here. Rather, it is to understand the cultures of the Jews, from their origins to today and even perhaps tomorrow. Of course, some standard historical facts are needed as anchor points, but the interest of anthropologists is always drawn away from kings and ministers to ordinary people: How did or do they live? What do they believe in? What are their hopes and dreams? What do they worship? What do they teach their children? What entertains and uplifts them? What threatens their survival and how do they react? How do they see themselves in a wider human world?
This approach leads to some quite different emphases than those of conventional history. Here are some of the main points this book will make:
There is no evidence outside the Bible for any of the events described in it until quite late in the saga. The Creation, the Flood, the patriarchal family settling the land, the Exodus, the revelation on Mount Sinai, the wandering in the desert, or the conquest of Canaan, the Promised Land—all exist only in biblical texts. But the Bible is a document like any other. It has its own purposes and distortions, but as a wise archeologist once said, just because it is written in the Bible doesn’t necessarily mean that it is wrong.
And of course, there are other kinds of truth. If the text of the Bible is the revealed word of God, or even the work of authors directly inspired by God, then its claims do not have to be held to any scientific or scholarly standard. I understand this kind of belief, I respect it, and I once subscribed to it myself. But it will not figure in any sense in this account of how the people of Israel lived, and how they became the Jews—except when there is independent corroborating evidence. With all due respect to believers, I write here as an anthropologist who does not believe anything that is not scientifically proven.
So what do we know? From the start the Israelites were in a buffer zone between empires, and this was formative. We can’t grasp the origins of the Jews without understanding the weakness of their physical position. The hatred of domination by foreign powers was of the essence of Israelite culture. But the Israelites had their own emperor—the one God who trumped all earthly powers. They came late to the world stage, millennia after the rise of the Near Eastern civilizations, and were no more than a footnote to ancient history. But by adopting writing and making texts central to their culture, and by placing one God at the heart of religion and ethics, the Israelites changed the world.
The destruction of their first Temple in Jerusalem and the resulting first exile brought a new kind of Judaism into being. Texts, scribes, and interpreters became all-important, longing for Jerusalem became central, adaptations to host countries were created, weakness became strength—the strength of monotheism, ethics, and speaking truth to power—and a succession of prophets constantly reminded the people of these imperatives. The Temple and its priesthood were restored; but the new religion, centered on Torah interpretation as much as on animal sacrifice, developed in parallel. Idol worship continued to be a problem, and prophets arose to decry it, but also to hold Israel’s rulers to account for their treatment of the poor. Despite the Temple’s restored glory, this concern with the weak was now permanent.
Greek culture was more tempting than Babylon’s, and the spectrum of adaptations from isolation to apostasy set the precedent for all future Jewish cultural encounters. But Greek anti- Semitism set limits on assimilation, and rabbinical Judaism was born. For the Jews at least, the ascent of Rome was a disaster, because Rome was the Stalinist Russia of its time. Severe oppression including thousands of crucifixions created seething rebellion, zealotry, messianism, and magic that gave rise to the mission of Jesus, as well as to two Jewish-Roman wars. Rome’s genocidal response to those wars ended Temple Judaism and drove most of the Jews out of their land.
Rabbinical—talmudic—Judaism was now the religion of the Jews, as they spread over much of the civilized world. But as Christianity acquired political power Jews were increasingly defined as the enemies of Christ and were treated as such—humiliated, beaten, exiled, and murdered again and again. This now helped define their culture. Jews living under Islam were also considered inferior, but enjoyed much more tolerance. Islamic culture shaped the Jews, who participated in it at all levels, and who brought the benefits of this higher culture to their central European brethren. In Islamic Spain, the Jews wrote troubadour poetry in Hebrew, served as military leaders, and made great contributions to philosophy.
They also developed a mystical tradition in Spain and Israel, paralleled by folk beliefs about imps and demons. But the mainstream of Jewish thought went through rabbinical academies, where the best minds gathered, competed, were nurtured, and were married off in every generation, creating a kind of cult of the intellect. With the opening of European secular thought to Jews, these outsiders’ contribution was way out of proportion to their numbers. They have continued to be overrepresented in every secular intellectual enterprise that humanity has turned its mind to.
Jews are not called wanderers for nothing, and their travels have reached the ends of the earth. Thriving and substantial Jewish communities existed for centuries in Arabia, Ethiopia, India, and China, while smaller numbers of Jews settled in the mountains of the Caucasus, on the island of Curaçao, and on the Alaskan frontier, to name just a few examples. Jewish communities have played a role beyond their numbers in Australia, South Africa, and Argentina. The common threads of these far-flung cultures tell us much about the essence of Jewishness. Exotic Jewish communities may not be the norm today, but they reflect the process that began Jewish life in every location outside of Israel.
Less exotically, Jews settled in central and eastern Europe, where they built the culture that dominates the Jewish world today. They created Yiddish, making it a language of everyday life as well as a literary language. They developed a variety of rabbinical traditions, and reached the pinnacle of excellence in Torah and Talmud study. These Jews were largely murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators in all occupied countries. So were the Sephardic Jews of the northern Mediterranean. But enough survived to carry on most Jewish traditions. They fought against their oppressors in many ways, and they won important victories. Tempered in this crucible of death, many of the survivors were hardened fighters who would help create the state of Israel.
Jews, or at least conversos, may have come to the Americas with Columbus. By Washington’s time there were several established communities, mainly Sephardic Jews, and they committed themselves to the Revolution with blood and treasure, as Jews have done in every other war the United States has fought. This was the greatest diaspora, and the one in which Jewish life would become most normal. The huge influx of Ashkenazic Jews in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries transformed them and their new country both. Their (mainly temporary) involvement in organized crime, their immense contribution to entertainment and the arts, and their achievements in science, technology, and business brought respect. But it was their continual legal testing of America’s stated ideals, both on their own behalf and that of others, that would be their greatest contribution.
Beginning in the nineteenth century the ages-old trickle of Jews back to Israel widened to a rivulet, then a stream, then a river. Legendary fights against swamps, malaria, and hostile Arabs marked several generations. The kibbutz, the world’s most successful invented society, played a critical role in addressing these and other challenges. Hebrew was revived as a modern language, the only ancient language that has ever been reborn. A culture of sacrifice and militancy arose to protect this fragile entity from its far more numerous enemies. But great divisions created tensions and inequalities, not least with respect to whether and when the Palestinian people will have a state of their own.
Despite men’s domination of Jewish life, women have emerged from the shadows since biblical times. They have led armies, defied kings, contributed to the Talmud, built multinational business empires, written memoirs and letters, resettled Israel, led it, given their lives in heroic actions against their enemies, helped end apartheid in South Africa and segregation in America, sat in the Senate and on the Supreme Court, and helped create the labor movement and the feminist revolution—all while producing the next generation of Jews. However, the history of Jewish women is in some ways just beginning.
Jewish life will survive future threats just as it has survived all past ones. Jews have suffered, but not lying down. They have a tradition of arguing with God, and have pursued social justice by arguing with kings. They will continue to be hated, to achieve great things for themselves and others, to defend their ancient homeland, and to face the world with the proud yet open-minded stance that has allowed them to survive for more than three millennia. There is every reason to believe that they will be here for the next.
I lost my faith at seventeen amid the rebellions of the sixties, a philosophy course in my first semester in college, and of course a great love. At the beginning of that semester I used to walk halfway across Brooklyn to see the young lady on Friday nights; at the end of it I no longer saw the meaning of God. I never regained my faith, and I was largely out of touch with anything Jewish for fifteen years. I had reconstructed a worldview based on science—evolution, anthropology, and behavioral biology would eventually explain my nature and that of every other human being. But unlike some nonbelievers, I considered my loss of faith precisely that—a loss.
Still, I maintained what I considered a strong inner Jewish identity. With my name, average looks, and nondistinctive voice I could easily have passed, but I always found an excuse to let people know that I was Jewish. During those years I read extensively about the Holocaust, married someone at least nominally Jewish, followed the novels of Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, and Saul Bellow very faithfully, and ate bagels and lox. That was about it.
At seventeen, in the throes of the sixties, I may have thought that both sectarianism and God were on the way out, but at thirty I knew better. At thirty-two, when my first child was born, I was ready for some kind of Jewish reawakening. When she was eight days old I was walking around Harvard Yard with her in a Snugli and I noticed some music at Memorial Church. It was Yom Kippur, and I was amazed to find about 1,500 people in a Reform Jewish service there. I had been on the Harvard campus for twelve years and had never realized how large and active the Jewish community was. And this was not the largest service. The Conservative one in Memorial Hall held 2,500, the Orthodox one 750, a Reconstructionist service and others many more. I had had no idea.
As Chanukah approached, I looked into my daughter’s eyes and asked myself, “Are three thousand years of tradition going to end with me?” I lit Chanukah candles for the first time in fifteen years. So it went, as not faith, but Jewish practices reentered my life. Many required negotiations with my wife, who had grown up virtually devoid of them. When we had our son circumcised, it was a ritual in our home on the eighth day, and we read the passage where God commands Abraham to circumcise and seal the covenant. And he who is not circumcised in the skin of his foreskin...that soul shall be cut off from his people. This ominous shadow would not fall on our son, who now had a Jewish identity, Jewish anatomy, and Jewish vulnerability. After moving to Atlanta, and thanks in no small part to my wife’s open- mindedness, we joined a synagogue and gave our three children a Jewish education. That way, as adults they would have a choice.
In 1985 I went to Israel for the first time with a group of college professors sponsored by the American Jewish Committee. To say that this had a major impact on me would be the understatement of that decade. It so happened that we arrived on Christmas Day, and as the bus took us from the airport through the streets of Tel Aviv, I realized I was looking at a normal working day, without decorations or Christian music, as people shopped or found their way home in the gathering dusk. For the first time in my life I was in a Jewish country, not a Christian one. I also felt shame that I had waited so long to make the pilgrimage, although as a child I had absorbed Zionist ideals. Near the end of that for me momentous trip, I was walking atop the Masada fortress when a fellow traveler asked me why I looked so pained. “This is the greatest adventure in Jewish history,” I said—meaning modern Israel—“and I am not a part of it.”
The six months after that trip were a daze of admiration and affection very much like being in love. I woke up and went to sleep thinking about Israel, feeling the pain of separation from the beloved, steeped in fantasies about moving there to be with her. My wife was feeling the pinch of jealousy, I think, when she asked at breakfast one morning, “Where is this going?” The answer turned out to be increased involvement in the Jewish community and the mounting of a course called “Anthropology of the Jews.” This would be a stretch for me, since my expertise was in the biological basis of human behavior, but there was no course in Jewish anthropology at my university. I thought I could fill the gap, since I knew a lot about anthropology and a lot about the Jews.
It was much harder than that, but as I taught it for more than a decade, I learned what I needed to know, and then some. The end result was this book, motivated by personal involvement with Jews and Judaism but informed by an extensive literature. I was greatly aided in my adult education by two years in the Wexner Heritage Foundation seminars, which revived what I knew in childhood and added much more. I eventually made six more trips to Israel, talking extensively with people in three kibbutzim, three West Bank settlements, Tel Aviv, Haifa, and of course Jerusalem. My friendships with Israelis range across all walks of life and from one end of the political spectrum to the other, including an ultra-Orthodox rabbi with a long beard and a black coat, bronze-tanned pioneers, career warriors, and left-wing activists. Some of their views make me very uncomfortable, but I mainly listen. On one trip my eldest daughter—the one for whom I first lit the Chanukah candles—took me to meet her friends in Ramallah and Amman. It was bracing and important to hear, see, and feel their side of the story.
I also visited and studied many archeological sites and began to understand in a new way how this ancient people emerged from a rock-strewn, brown-and-green, sun-washed landscape and acquired the values that changed the world. I saw a good deal of the rest of the Jewish world as well, visiting synagogues in Edinburgh, Paris, Padua, Cairo, and other cities—some now just museums—and the heart of Jewish mysticism in Girona, Spain. I also visited the concentration camp at Dachau. This book may not be based on conventional research, but a great deal of lived experience went into it.
The most important of these experiences are not in travels though, but in the course of my own American-Jewish journey. I began as an Orthodox boy, became a skeptical uninvolved young man, and grew back into Jewishness as children entered my life. I can perhaps be fairly accused of practicing “pediatric Judaism,” the contemptuous term some rabbis use for people who engage in Jewish activities through and for their children. But my favorite definition of a Jew is an unofficial one: someone who has Jewish children. By that definition as well as several others, I am certainly a Jew. Yet there is more to my holiday and Friday night observances than “for the children’s sake.” I love the forms, the ritual, the poetry, the haunting melodies that take me back to 1950s Brooklyn. On that first trip to Israel I went to the Western Wall several times, picked up a prayer book, and chanted the prayers I had said so many times as a boy. One day I heard Yehuda Rosenman, our fine guide on that trip, say to a colleague behind me, “There’s Mel Konner again, praying to the God that he doesn’t believe in.”
This is very Jewish. The Torah tells us that when Moses offered God’s Law to the Hebrew people, they said, “We will do and we will understand.” This paradox of practice before understanding, practice leading to understanding, is characteristically Jewish. There is no leap of faith, no rebirth in the Jewish God. There are practices that lead to and confirm faith every day. As the rabbi of my childhood said when I asked him about my doubts—I can still see the intensity on his face—“If you lose your faith, it will be a terrible thing.” He raised a finger in a characteristic gesture. “But don’t stop coming to shul.”
I did stop for a long time, and when I started again, not at all consistently, it may have been too late. Certainly I have not had my faith reawakened. But I have had my love for the tradition and my allegiance to the people who practice it reconfirmed beyond all measure. This has been immensely rewarding for me, both an emotional and an intellectual adventure. I hope that, in a small way, this book—the culmination of my search so far—may help other Jews to understand their Jewishness and their history. I hope too that the many non-Jewish friends of the Jews will find in it some answers to their questions about this people. And, perhaps quixotically, I hope that even some enemies of the Jews may find in it reasons to mitigate their enmity, or even to awaken their sympathy. The epigraph I chose for the book comes from the Havdalah service that ends the Sabbath. “So let it be with us” does not, in my mind, refer only to the Jews. It refers to all humanity. For surely the making of a decent, prosperous, peaceful world will help to ensure Jewish survival.
Whatever else we may or may not know about the Jews, it is likely that in their earliest generations as an identifiable people, they were already telling this story. By the time they had really become Jews they had written it down, and the pale, dried skin it was inked on was sacred to them. There can have been no time when there were Jews but no text, because text was of their essence. They belonged to it even more than it belonged to them. They very nearly worshiped it, and they surely believed that it reflected the mind of God, whom they called Elohim, or Yahweh.
Radically arrogant in their divine abstractions, they saw no distinction between God and their God. Yahweh was God. Anyone could worship Yahweh, perhaps, but he was theirs first. Eventually they would conclude that there could be no other. Thus did a group of paltry, poor hill-country tribes, relentlessly buffeted among huge warring states, dismiss with a small wave of its hand all the great gods of all those looming, mighty empires.
Or really, a wave of its mind. As soon as there were Jews, no doubt, they insisted upon abstractions. Where others built statues of gold, bronze, and marble, minimally fitting tributes to their feared, cherished gods, the Jews rejected all such concretions and all the deeply held beliefs that went along with them. Think of the passion and reverence of Achilles and Agamemnon, Penelope and Odysseus, Antigone and Creon, to get some sense of what the Jews rejected: ancient, comforting, tried-and-true, fiercely fought-for, deeply held beliefs about awesome gods and compassionate goddesses.
They spoke, instead, of God, and let the idea hang in the air among them. They prayed to God, and basked in the glow of the Thou thus envisioned. God was theirs, not just as a people but as individuals, and each and every one of them could become intimate with God. Some wrote of God in paroxysms or trances of inspiration, and others found the writing holy. In time, if not at once, they cast off the distinction between the abstraction of a God-inspired text and that of a text authored by God. God, the first writer. God, who existed because he wrote. God, who wrote his message down and gave it to his people and through them to the world. Still in the new millennium, Jews throughout the world raise that text aloft every Sabbath for all to see, and sing or chant the proclamation of what it is—just as Jews did in two earlier millennia, and for all the Sabbaths in between. Hear their proclamation:
Yahweh or Elohim? According to scientific Bible scholarship, the books we know as Genesis and Exodus were melded from two main sources, each set down by an earthly author who lived not much less than three thousand years ago. One of them called God Yahweh, the other Elohim, and they wrote parallel versions of the tales that shaped their lives. A later editor—likely a committee—folded together versions by the Elohist and the Yahwist. And that was just the beginning; at least two other authors had their contributions edited in before the Torah as we know it was canonized.
But the first two concern us here because they first tried to define this people. They contradict each other in places, but they record a common tradition. Perhaps they represented different factions in the courts of Israel’s kings, or rival branches of the hereditary priesthood. Perhaps tribal loyalty was a factor, and the blended text we know helped make two related tribes a nation. It has even been suggested that the Yahweh author was a woman in the court of King David’s grandson, composing an ironic text that gave women pivotal roles and made important men look like fools.1
We can’t know, really, but it is interesting to think that Elohim was the Hebrews’ first name for their distinctive, solitary God. In the Torah’s grammar, Elohim is a singular proper noun, but it seems to have a plural ending. El, god; Elohim...gods? Elohim is a singular noun with a strange property: plurality contained in singularity. If this is so, the very idea of one God—the supreme idea of an idea-ridden people—is contained in what may have been God’s first name. Elohim proclaims not only God’s oneness but the oneness of God’s comprehensive inclusiveness. In other words, God’s name proclaims the impossibility and falsity of every other competing idea of God. Say “Elohim,” and you declare that the gods of Achilles are just so many chunks of stone, so many vain and helpless dreams, all absorbed in the complex unity of the only God.
Still, the Torah can say what it will; for our purposes, there must be other evidence for nonfundamentalists to believe the tales it tells. Independently corroborating historical documents. Archeological excavations. Tombstones engraved with telltale symbols. Trade records etched in stone tablets. Ships loaded with wine casks at the bottom of the sea. Altars. Stories told in Ur or Egypt of a small tribal people on the banks of the Jordan River, conquered and enslaved or still peskily fighting back. Monuments to conquest. Bows and shields interred with slain princes. Scratches on limestone slabs. Something.
The fact is, there is no corroborating evidence that Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob ever existed. Except for the Torah text, there is no decisive proof that the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt, that they rebelled and walked away from the place, or that a leader such as Moses arose and took that people into the desert. There is no proof that they wandered for forty years; that they crossed the Jordan from the east; that they made assaults on Jericho and other towns in what is now Judea; that they arrived believing that they had been promised that land; that they conquered the Canaanites west of the Jordan and stood off the Philistines coming in from the coastal plain; that they came, desert nomads, to settle in a land in which they had spied out giants, a land in which their forefathers had met Yahweh face-to-face, a land flowing with milk and honey. There is not one single fact that requires us to accept one single miracle, and the voices of science are raised in unison against most of them.2
And yet, the Bible is a document. Like many ancient documents it is quirky and tendentious, inventive and mythological, dazzlingly poetic and craftily dramatized. It has designs on the mind of the reader that are often not compatible with historical or scientific truth. But it also contains historical facts that have been independently confirmed. And again, even for those that have not: just because it is written in the Bible doesn’t necessarily mean that it is wrong.
But even leaving faith aside, there is yet another kind of truth, and that is literary truth. The Torah itself reveals great truths about human nature. But more important for our purposes, it yields enormous insight into the minds and hearts of the people who have carried this Torah with them in some form for nearly three thousand years, and who told one another some of the stories for centuries before they were written down. Obviously, it does not correspond to an account of their culture, only to some of their aspirations and beliefs. If the Jews, instead of making written words their lifeblood, were a nonliterate people, then anthropologists would be interviewing tribal elders. They would diligently record the rules of behavior, the punishments for misbehavior, the nature of God and people’s relationship to God, the precise prescriptions governing festivals and rituals, the stratification of society, and the role of priests. They would learn about the expected behavior of men and women, the protocol of marriage and family, and the reckoning of kinship and its attendant responsibilities. And of course they would write down the great, old stories, the sagas of wise, strong, and charismatic men and women from a time beyond time, the adventure tales that carry people out of themselves and that somehow, circuitously—not just by positive or negative example, but by the compelling literary power that grabs people by the throat and shakes them to the core—make them feel something indelible, and teach them how to live. In this sense the Torah, indeed the whole Jewish Bible or “Old” Testament, is an anthropological document.
So the Torah, historically true or not, is where we begin our journey; but we will range far beyond it. Jews have lived in every corner of the world and have persisted for more than three millennia. They have had many different interpretations of the Torah, and some have abandoned it for secular pursuits. But none have escaped its influence, and as we trace their history and survey the great sweep of changing Jewish cultures, we will find the Torah everywhere, proclaiming as it does that there is one God, that God expects human beings to meet certain obligations, that God demands justice. We will have many other sources of information about the cultures of the Jews—diaries, letters, artifacts, literature, histories, and even the past century’s conventional anthropological studies of still-extant Jewish cultures. But the Torah will inform us in every time and place, and before we can understand its meaning, we must understand the world that gave birth to it.
The roots of the Jews are lost in the deep, blood-soaked mud of ancient empire. For several centuries in the middle of the second millennium b.c.e.—before the common era—the time when the Hebrews should, according to legend, have been slaves unto Pharaoh in Egypt, there are repeated references in Egyptian letters to people called apiru. It is possible, just possible, that apiru means Hebrew. It is also possible that apiru is merely a word for servants or slaves. Conceivably both are true—the ancient Hebrews could have derived their very name from their status as the oppressed. This would befit a people destined to be victimized countless times, to be crushed, to survive, and to triumph, and to build a culture that endlessly celebrates liberation from slavery and transcends oppression.
But the sojourn in Egypt, the generations in the wilderness, the conquest against all odds— these are legends. They may be true, but all we know about them is what we read in the Bible. It isn’t necessarily wrong, but neither is it necessarily right. Scientifically, it is conjecture. Not conjecture, though, is the people Israel. They are mentioned clearly in the year 1207 b.c.e., on a stone column called the Merneptah stela, after the Pharaoh who commissioned it and made this boastful declaration:
At some point an adviser may say, Those people west of the Jordan’s stream, those villages that dot the hills of Judea and Samaria, they have no real gods. Let us give them our gods. And an emperor may nod absently over his evening wine, wave the adviser away, and soon find himself in a very annoying struggle with people who, if they have no gods, must yet have something in their heads that makes them lay down their lives and kill perfectly good soldiers in order to keep other gods out. So another adviser says, They have this god that they talk about—or rather that they don’t. They write about him. Or they wrote about him once. They dedicate burnt offerings on altars erected before...nothing! They chant and murmur and sing in what appear to be trances, eyes closed, minds wandering. They have a god without an image, with a name that they won’t say. But this god and his laws are to them worth dying for. My advice: Exact tribute, tax them into poverty, drag them off in chains into slavery, whatever. But don’t mess with their drivel about their God. Trust me, it will be more trouble than it’s worth.
We know that the Egyptian empire existed for at least two thousand years before the Hebrews are supposed to have been slaves there. The Egyptians conquered what is now Israel repeatedly during that time. Since slavery was pervasive in the ancient world and one of the main goals of conquest was to garner masses of slaves—along with gold, copper, goats, lapis lazuli, and other assorted tribute—it would be odd indeed if the tribal peoples of the Jordan region had never been enslaved by the Egyptians. Since famine was common, it is also quite likely that starving, seminomadic Israelites at some time or other migrated down into the Sinai Peninsula and farther south into Goshen, the northeast corner of Egypt, in search of pasture for their flocks. If they did, they would sooner or later have been at the mercy of whoever held those lands. This generic process, which undoubtedly happened more than once over the centuries of ancient Egyptian rule, could be the basis of the biblical saga.
Egypt was constantly fending off attempts by the Hittites—then the reigning force to the north—to encroach on that piece of land. The peoples between the Jordan and the Mediterranean served as a buffer against the Hittites. The Hittites, for their part, didn’t want the Egyptians in their backyard either, and tried to bring the between tribes under their own influence. But ideally Egypt wanted to rule the fringes without being there. It needed allies it could rely on, allies that were weak compared to Egypt but strong enough to fend off the Hittites.
In the three centuries before Merneptah’s ill-timed arrogance, Egypt did indeed dominate Israel, during an epoch known as the New Kingdom.4 Their initial violent conquest left a layer of destruction in every archeological excavation in ancient Israel. After this, the land between the Jordan and the sea was crossed by north-south highways, along which Egyptian outposts guarded travel and trade. Hundreds of letters from Egypt’s emissaries and local vassals addressed to a long succession of Pharaohs reveal their thorough dominance and disabling exploitation. Destructive taxes demanded large shipments of goods and extensive forced labor, often amounting to indentured servitude. Caravans went south toward the Nile laden with gold, silver, turquoise, lapis lazuli, cattle, horses, sheep, goats, wheat, barley, and of course slaves. They came back with tax collectors and soldiers.
After the main wave of conquest, repeated further efforts were needed to reestablish Egyptian dominance. One battle at Megiddo, a large town in the fertile valley east of the Carmel Mountains, was typical. Pharaoh Thutmose III laid siege to the town from May to December in the year 1468 b.c.e. When the city fell, the local princes crawled on their bellies to kiss the Pharaoh’s feet, and then they and their families were forced, along with other captives, to carry all their wealth to Egypt. Over and above what Pharaoh’s army ate and used and took for themselves, the recorded plunder included 11,000 tons of wheat, 20,500 sheep, 1,929 cattle, 2,041 horses, 924 chariots (including a ceremonial one made of gold), 200 coats of leather mail, and 502 bows. Taking three towns farther north on the same campaign, Thutmose captured 1,796 slaves and their children, 235 pounds of unworked gold and silver discs, and a wealth of valuable, finely crafted furniture, bowls, utensils, clothing, and statuary.5
Such lists reveal the brutality of the New Kingdom, but they also tell us a lot about life in Israel at the time. The larger towns had accumulated great wealth, were ruled by elites, and were constantly prepared for war, while the smaller settlements around and between the towns were simple agricultural villages. The bases of life were grain for bread, olives for oil, grapes for wine, and a local spring or river for water. Sheep, goats, and some cattle provided milk and meat. If you were a successful farm family, you could work hard, produce this natural wealth, pay taxes and tribute but still live decently, build a substantial stone house among others in the settlement, furnish it, and even buy some jewelry and make some household idols. Then, periodically, an army led by Pharaoh, by one of his Asian enemies, or even just by a local warlord from over the next hill would sweep through your life and take it all away.
Towns emerged and in time became cities. If there is one law of collective human action it is that people move to cities; they have been doing it for ten thousand years, and decrying it for most of that time. Call it the lure of the bright lights or population pressure on agricultural land, it has happened over and over again. Cities need food, specialized nonfarm labor, bosses, servants, and organized defenders. They need political stability, at least on the order of decades. And because life is inherently unpredictable and perilous, they need gods to explain their good or bad fortune, with priests to explain the otherwise unfathomable thoughts, motives, and wishes of those gods.
By the time there were towns, eight or ten thousand years ago, the seeds of empire were already in place. Kinship, the main organizer of all small-scale societies, determined the succession of chieftains and then the divine right of kings. Divine, because the priests and the kings were tightly allied, except when they were one and the same. Also in this ostensibly holy alliance were engineers who could raise houses, watchtowers, temples, and palaces and bring water to parched land; tax collectors and record keepers who could impose tribute on a widening mass of ignorant farmers around those towns; bureaucrats who could distribute to nonfarmers, however unfairly, the mountains of grain exacted in tribute and piled high in the king’s silos; and above all, an army.
An army with strong ties of wealth, blood, loyalty, and fear to the political pyramid of priests, kings, and princes. An army that, in tandem with the priests’ incantations, could keep common people at just that pitch between fear and comfort that would make them slowly work themselves to death while grumblingly or acceptingly paying tribute. And an army of legends and heroes to defend the kingdom from other armies that would, if they invaded, make the lives of common people even worse.
Thus, the rise of civilization. It is a story of population density, fear, aggression, conquest, subjugation, tribute, priestly incantations, and increasing dependency on those stronger or smarter or better-connected than you for your livelihood, your future, and your life. Karl Marx said something of capitalism that may not be true of that system, but is demonstrably true of what we like to call civilization: Civilization arose from the mud—literally, the mud of irrigated farmland near prodigious waterways—with blood oozing from every pore—mainly, the blood of expendable commoners who were slaughtered, enslaved, dragged off in chains at spearpoint, and either literally or figuratively sacrificed to the physical and spiritual comfort of their “betters.” The poems, plays, and art that we associate with civilization were largely incidental.
With the possible exception of the early civilization of the Indus Valley, in any case temporary, this is the true story of every spot in the world where ecological conditions favored the rise of intensive agriculture. The pattern is depressingly consistent. To historians these processes may not be laws, but to an anthropologist they are about as close to being laws as anything describing biological materials—not without exception, but very helpful indeed.
As we have seen, Egypt and Hatti, as the Hittite empire was known, were the main rivals. Israel was a confederation of tribes, a handful among many, who happened to dwell on the fringe of Egyptian dominance instead of squarely belonging to either empire. There were other tribes, and possibly other confederations, in the Middle East at the time.
But the Merneptah carving only mentions Israel; the other names are all towns or states, and Israel is the only tribal group listed. Intriguingly, its mention makes it masculine, while all the other names are feminine. Israel was distinctive in the region—not for its religion, but for its rough-and-ready tribal power. If its tribes attacked towns and settlements, other tribes, or even, from time to time, each other, Egypt would not shed many tears. Divide and rule was the strategy: create a buffer zone of towns and tribes strong enough to keep the Hittites at bay, but too weak to challenge Egypt.
But Egypt’s policy of devastating taxation and frequent brutal reconquest steadily eroded the population. An Egyptian text gives a clear view of what a village farmer could have expected from the empire in the way of taxation before Israelite independence:
The next two centuries have been thought of as a golden age for tribal Israel, corresponding to the biblical period of Judges, and culminating in David’s kingdom. There is no evidence that Israel at this time embodied any ideal traits, or indeed that it differed much from other tribal confederations, except in power.6 But something encouraged rebellion against Egyptian tyranny and gave the resulting political entity the credibility to take root and grow.
At first the Israelites were clients of the Europeans, who used them as the Egyptians had but allowed them more freedom. They began a period of settlement, building, and expansion throughout the region once destroyed by Egyptian rule. Towns grew, hundreds of villages were founded, population increased, and Israel emerged as the key political and military force. The newest settlements and the greatest population growth took place in the hill country west of the Jordan River. This was the Early Iron Age. Because the Europeans held the lush coastal plain, the Israelites settled in the hills. They grew their villages, reoccupied hundreds of abandoned village sites, and built many new ones near permanent springs or, more densely, in river valleys. In wooded areas they cut down trees, burned scrub, and terraced hills, establishing fields, vineyards, orchards, and homes. This settlement period corresponds to what the Bible describes as the conquest of Canaan, and in a sense it was that, although not from outside. But in any case it provided the foundation for the Israelite kingdom to come.
For five centuries settlements increased. No doubt there were some groups that fit the classic idea of the Israelites as a tent-dwelling pastoral people following herds of goats and sheep, Bedouin-like, as they wandered in the desert. But many were settled in peasant villages, and the towns included a rich, armed, priest-ridden urban elite.
All these people ate bread, making it from grain grown by rain agriculture. Wheat grew best in the lowland plains and highland valleys, while barley tolerated the drier semideserts and arid hills. They dipped their bread in olive oil, which besides having needed calories served as ointment, cosmetic, and lamp fuel. Peas, beans, lentils, and chickpeas complemented the grains, largely meeting protein needs and restoring nitrogen to the soil. Vineyards produced wine and raisins, and orchards yielded dates, figs, apricots, pomegranates, carobs, almonds, walnuts, and pistachios. Milk from goats and sheep was made into cheese and yogurt, and the same animals supplied occasional meat. Dove, quail, antelope, wild plants, and honey came directly from the land.
We know the yearly rhythm of life from one of the oldest Israelite inscriptions, the Gezer calendar.7 A sort of to-do list etched on a limestone slab the size of a handheld computer, it itemizes farmwork month by month. Its significance for us today is that it describes the foundation of the Jewish calendar used ever since. In China, Texas, or Ecuador many centuries later, Jews are still celebrating holidays and marking seasons according to the rhythm of Israelite peasant life three millennia ago. It is fundamental to Jewish culture.
“Two months: ingathering,” the list begins, meaning the harvest of grapes and olives in late summer and early fall. This is the start of the traditional Jewish year, the harvest itself still marked by Sukkot, the Feast of Booths, when religious Jews eat in temporary wooden structures that recall the makeshift huts of the ancient autumn harvest. “Two months: sowing” meant late fall, when the rains began, and “Two months: late grass,” the continued sowing of winter. A month of “cutting flax” followed around March, when seeds were gathered to eat or press into oil. Barley harvest came next, and then a month of “harvesting and measuring” wheat in May and June.
This was the most important harvest, the one described in the biblical book of Ruth and celebrated in the Jewish Feast of Weeks, Shavuot. The corners of the fields were left uncut by Torah law, so poor people like Ruth could eat. “Measuring” meant counting portions of grain on the threshing floor, vital for both businesslike farming and tax collecting. This same threshing floor was the site of Ruth’s sweet seduction of Boaz, leading to the line of Davidic kings. “Two months: pruning” meant preparation of vines for harvest, and finally “One month: summer fruit,” the harvest of figs and pomegranates, after which the cycle began again with grapes and olives.
We know a good deal about life in Israel at this time. Peasants lived in four-room houses built of limestone blocks cut from the rocky landscape. Pillars inside the entrance on one side held a thin wall separating the stable from the living area. The wall might have a built-in trough for livestock in stalls paved with stone. The rest of the house was the family’s living space. The main room, often plastered, had a hearth, an oven, and cisterns. Pottery found in many of these houses—storage jars, cooking pots, oil lamps, dishes and bowls, and figurines—tells us the ethnic affinity of the inhabitants. Grain pits show that grain was the staff of life, specific to the period of settlement, with its small-scale, decentralized agriculture, unlike the silos and storehouses of kingdoms. The pits were up to ten feet wide and six deep, lined with stone, plaster, ash, clay, or dung, and bell- or bottle-shaped. They protected grain from rats, mice, dampness, and bacteria.
In the wake of Egyptian rule there could not be so brutal an exercise of power. There were still elites, but they were local, and they shared a common culture with the peasantry. Arable land was communally shared and rotated, and kin and clan ties tempered political power. Still, villagers were sometimes ravaged by extortionists, and depended on patrons, sheikhs, headmen, estate owners, and local lords for protection from enemies, access to vital resources, even propitiation of the gods that most people throughout the region believed in.
Who were these gods? A pantheon of strange and wondrous superhuman characters, some indigenous, others imported from Egypt or Mesopotamia, with its own shifting divine council, from time to time joined by the gods of conquered peoples.8 El was a pastoral, nomadic, chieflike god in a class by himself, traversing wild paths of desert, mountain range, and sea, sometimes along with his consort, Asherah. Baal was a high god of war and governance, who had Anat and Astarte as his sexy, magical consorts. Reshep, friend of warriors in life, and Horon, who guarded them in the underworld after death, made a life of endless risk tolerable for fighters. And Shamash, the sun, the ultimate giver of life, delivered his daily pulse of light and warmth, never taken for granted.
These were the gods of official cults, elites, and power, but they were also the gods of the weak peasant households. Still, they had to live at least as well as kings and chieftains, so they were given large quantities of burned animal flesh, the most precious food. Their priests and wealthy human allies shared in it, of course, and these human friends of the gods needed jewels, gold goblets, silver breastplates, and the best imported, decorated garments so that they could converse with the gods in style. Poor homes were also full of imps, sprites, and spirits, household idols, local saints and witches, ghosts of ancestors dangerous and caring, and countless other ways of giving the world meaning.
Sometime during this era there arose the seemingly preposterous idea that there was only one god. We don’t know when it appeared, who among the Israelites believed in it first, or why it made sense to them. But we know that the rest of the gods and spirits did not die quickly or quietly, and the story of Israel’s priests and prophets is largely one of combating idol worship for the next thousand years. The oft-repeated biblical phrase “a stiff-necked people” referred in the first place to their tendency to backslide toward idols. Abraham may have smashed his father’s gods, but the people he founded returned to them again and again.
Before the settlement period the whole pantheon must have seemed very much alive and real. The people were a collection of tribes—some pastoral wanderers, some settled villagers, some urban elites, some priests and warriors. Virtually all adults were married, had children, and, except for the elites, worked at farming, herding, or crafts from childhood to old age. Feasts and festivals full of worship, saga, song, and dance marked the annual round. Women were subordinate to men, but as men were to their betters. Supernatural forces—God or gods, imps, sprites, and ghosts—were as real and present as the rock you stubbed your toe on or the unseen mouse scurrying in the grain pit.
But this static picture doesn’t capture the dynamic, threatening course of life. Women died in childbirth, infants and young children were routinely lost to illness, and the specter of infectious disease clouded the whole of life. Fights, accidents, and drunkenness punctuated household calm. Overall, this was a less violent era than the brutal epoch of Egyptian exploitation. But peace, that sacred, hoped-for state, was invariably provisional, a pause between raids and wars. In fortunate times it might persist as much as a generation or two, but no one could have expected it to endure.
Abram must have wondered if he’d heard right. Leave everyone and everything on the strength of a none-too-plausible vision? Trash your dad’s dearly loved and perfectly serviceable gods because you hear some other kind of god—invisible, no less—talking to you inside your head? Walk away from your cozy corner of a vast, secure empire to be a vagabond, drifting through hostile territory until you come to “the land that I will show you”? And true to character, yes, Abram was just such a hero, like every founder first of all a leaver, a rejectionist, an explorer, a dreamer.
According to Jewish tradition, Abraham came to the Promised Land from elsewhere. His great-grandchildren, Joseph and his brothers, left it in time of famine to find food (and, in Joseph’s case, worldly success) in Egypt. They stayed in Egypt for many generations, and although they bred and grew, their lot in life worsened until they were enslaved and savagely oppressed by a Pharaoh “who did not know Joseph.” A new leader, Moses—Jewish by birth and destiny but not by upbringing, education, status, faith, or marriage—led this now numerous slave people out of Egypt, among signs and wonders, into the wilderness to worship an invisible, solitary God.
A pilgrimage that could have been made in a matter of weeks took forty years, as the scraggly column, wanderers descended from a wanderer, wended its way through the Sinai (with a stop at a certain sacred mountain), the Negev, and the land of Moab east of the Jordan, taking a route so circuitous as to make us ask if God might not have given them a map. But according to tradition, the meandering circuit allowed them to slough off slave habits, become ready for independence, and be tested in their devotion to God.
Now another leader, Joshua, stood at the head of a military force. This force, with God’s help, could cross the Jordan and conquer the tribes and cities on the other side, where, according to Israel’s spies, people were giants. Finally, after another two centuries of more or less continual war, a last great leader, David, arose. This talented warrior-chieftain unified Israel and Judah, two independent but related nations, and established the kingdom of Israel. Under him and his son Solomon this kingdom would have wider extent, greater unity, and more international credibility than it would have again for nearly three thousand years.
Now the Jews appear to have a problem. They can believe the account in their most sacred document, the Torah, and its sequels, the Prophets and Writings—what Jews call the Tanakh, and Christians the Old Testament. This has them taking the land away from others because God promised it to them. Or they can believe the archeological account, which has them in place on the land continuously—if not from time immemorial then at least from a time that precedes Moses and even Abraham. It would seem that the two accounts cannot both be true.
Or can they? The culture of David’s kingdom and that of his heirs was an amalgam of styles and peoples. Some of them had farmed the hills of Judea for millennia, sharing them with other farming cultures. Others were pastoral nomads who had ranged over hotly contested pastures to the west and south. Still others had been dragged off into slavery in Egypt, or had gone there voluntarily and found themselves disadvantaged strangers in a strange land. And of course the centuries of Egyptian rule, with its brutal taxation and conscriptions, put the whole region into a kind of slavery, and the period of expansion under European protection must have been both literally and figuratively a liberation. No doubt there were Joshuas and Deborahs, Judiths and Sauls, because as in most of the ancient world there was more or less ceaseless war, and war produces heroes.
But at a certain point, perhaps eight or nine centuries before the common era, a unified culture composed a unified story: the kingdom of Israel; the House of David. This monarchy, David’s line, comes into history’s notice perhaps two centuries after the reign of David’s son Solomon. It is in the form of a stone tablet inscribed with the words “House of David.” That is all, but it is substantial. It tells us that by the eighth century before the common era there was a line of kings in Jerusalem descended from David. To many historians, including nonreligious ones, it fits with other evidence that a great tribal chieftain and gifted warrior unified the cultures that shared the monotheistic ideal, creating the first Jewish kingdom. He went up to what would sometimes be called the City of David but was literally Yerushalayim, Jerusalem: the City of Peace. Then as now it was a high point for miles around, looking down and off to the west into the Jordan River valley, to the north into Samaria, to the west toward the rich coastal plain, to the south toward the Salt Sea and the desert they had once, according to song and story, crossed generations before.
The City of Peace has been at war for most of the time since. So its name was presumably a prayer, an avowal of hope for the future, and a term for a temporary rest from war for a people who must have known war and its consequences as well as they knew anything. But when the invincible warlord who became King David decided to make Jerusalem his capital, it was not just to preserve the ancient custom of “going up” to become great. It was because the city of hoped- for peace stood just about in the heart of the sun-rich, hill-pocked, sparsely watered region where the tribes known collectively as Israel had lived for centuries.
Still, in a sense the Bible stories are true, as a sweeping depiction of Israel over centuries of change. As it slowly emerged it was under the rule of Egypt, which faced shifting alliances, external threats, rebellion, and internal discord. Wars shifted the border between the Egyptians and the Hittites; and client Canaanite peoples, including those becoming Israel, fluctuated in independence or loyalty.
We know that some Israelites were carried into slavery in Egypt during this long reign. Climate shifts and famines may have made some of the Israelites go down into Egypt as the patriarchs do in the Bible. Since the Pharaohs enlisted foreign talent, Abraham’s advisory role and even Joseph’s viceroylike position may have been part of the Israelites’ Egyptian experience. Finally, the ebb and flow of dynasties produced some that ruled with a velvet glove and some with an iron fist. At times in Israel conditions were oppressive enough to have approached the unhappy state of slavery without the people even leaving home. At some times and places, there may even have been rebellion and exodus.
What is not plausible is that the Israelites as one coherent bloc went down into Egypt, became slaves there, left in a burst of miracles, wandered for forty years, and returned to claim their former land with a fierce army of conquest. This came down to us because it is a much grander story, and because those celebrating the power and glory of the kingdom of Israel, centuries after the tribes had unified and settled, told it in this dramatic, compelling, coherent way—truer than true and durable for at least three millennia.
1. Genesis: How the Jews Were Born in Israel
2. Kingdom Come: How the Israelites Became a Nation
3. Babylon: How the Kingdom Fell and the Culture Channged
4. Roman Ruin: How the Jews Lost Their Land
5. Diaspora: How the Jews Dispersed Among Their Enemies
6. Crossed Swords: How Christian Power Vanquished the Jews
7. Under the Minaret: How Islam (Partly) Tolerated the Jews
8. Spain and Beyond: How the Sephardic Jews Found Romance
9. Brightness: How Jewish Genius Changed and Grew
10. Ends of the Earth: How Jews Thrived in Exotic Places
11. Yidn: How the Jews helped Create Modern Europe
12. Mamesh-Loshn: How the Ashkenazic Jews Spoke and Thought
13. Smoke: How the Germans Gave the Jews Graves in the Air
14. Fire: How the Jews Fought Back
15. The Golden Land: How the Jews Helped Make America
16. Ha'aretz: How the Jews Came Home
17. Women of Valor: How Jewish Women Broke the Patriarchal Bonds
18. Conclusion: A Drop of Red Wine: How the Jews Will Face the Future
A Jewish Time Line
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