The Community of Ancient Israel

Robert Bellah wrote in “The Broken Covenant” that American Civil Religion helped form a unified nation. Bellah assumed civil religion was necessary because America was the world’s first ‘new’ nation, a nation of unrelated immigrants who do not share a common history or religion as the populations of other countries do. However, Bellah was not the first to perceive the need for unifying ideas. It was Enlightenment thinker J. J. Rousseau who first proposed this idea. Both Bellah and Rousseau were in search of a source of political unity in lieu of the Church.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, Ancient Israel is the primal community unified by blood, religion, law, and history. It is assumed that theirs was a natural association not possible in modern times, except perhaps in the case of Israel’s descendants. However in modern Judaism, the idea that Ancient Israel was a separate race of people is a matter of debate. Critics of this idea argue it was religion that united Israel, and that the religion was never limited to Jews. Critics of Zionism also debate whether modern Jews were meant to create the political state of Israel in Palestine. Even the Jewish historian Josephus has been criticized for his nationalistic tendencies.

Hebrew mythology and nomadic custom offer a different explanation for the unity of the family of Israel. Central to nomadic custom is the obligation of hospitality. Nomadic people exist in a hostile environment. Anyone left alone could die, therefore requests for asylum were never denied. You helped each individual or group who needed help because next time you may be in need. Nomadic tribes were bound to welcome refugees for a certain period of time. If the refugees chose to stay permanently the simple statement, “I adopt you,” made the newcomers one with the tribe who sheltered them. In this case, they would take the new tribe’s name and forget their old affiliations. In addition, people often embellished genealogies to explain the new family relationships. Today, genealogies are often assumed to be lists of human ancestors. However, ancient genealogies were mythological and political.

Moses led the exodus of several distinct tribes. (Their shared determination to leave Egypt is significant and will be discussed later.) Nomadic tribes initially took their names from nature and myth. Similar to Arabic tribes who took names such as “the Sons of the Rain,” Hebrew tribes took names such as “Sons of the Longhaired” or “Sons of the Multiplier. These names endured for a long time, eventually serving as names for Jacob’s sons. This was the beginning of the genealogical tradition, which traces the people of Israel to its first father, Jacob and thence goes back to his father and to Abraham.” This indicates a purposeful and methodical creation of family ties as a basis for political alliance.

Now it is interesting to think in this way of the tribes of Judah and Israel after they settled in Palestine. De Vaux laments that during their brief period of sovereignty they wasted time fighting each other. However, this was not exactly a family squabble. The religion and custom of Israel and Judah were not identical. For example, Judah was dynastic from the time of David. Israel was not dynastic until Omri. This is a fundamental difference. They were often allies, however, having more in common than either of them had with the Canaanites.

For the information about tribal names and the material in quotation marks see:

Goldziher, Ignaz and Heymann Steinthal. “Mythology Among the Hebrews and its Historical Development.” Cooper Square Publishers. New York. 1967.

See also:

The Genealogy of Adam and Eve

Adam, Noah and the Snake King

Nomads and City Dwellers: Institutions, Worldview

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