Relationship between the Jewish People and God
There are several passages in the Hebrew Bible that allude to the relationship between God and Israel or the Jewish people as His chosen people, for example:
“I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you” Gen 17:7 NIV
God reassured this agreement or covenant with Israel through Moses after the Jewish people escaped Egypt as slaves to search the Promised Land as heirs of God, as is written in the following text:
“I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the LORD your God, who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians.” Exo 6:7 NIV.
The history and the past of time have spread this vision through the growth of Christianity and Islam to distant parts of the world from Palestine and Jerusalem. The understanding of the Jewish people as the Chosen ones by God is not always very well taken by non-Jewish people and perhaps the true sense of their destiny, in this framework, has been diluted and even tergiversated.
Zaehner et al (1979:12) indicate that the relationship between God and Israel was a listening – obeying one that appealed to the will of people to do or do not do. This perspective gives to Judaism a dynamic role “directed towards events and movement of history”. This concept brings another characteristic to the religious attitude imprinted on the Jewish people that practice Judaism: Responsibility.
“For I am the LORD who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God; thus you shall be holy, for I am holy.” Lev. 11:45 NIV
As pointed before, the covenant between God and Israel was meant to establish a reciprocal relationship, where the Jewish people was expected to be obedient to God’s commandments, hopefully in thankfulness for His faithfulness and love.
The Jewish people considered their misfortunes as punishment for disobedience to the Torah but kept strong in the knowledge (or were reminded by prophets) of the eternal covenant made by God, which furnished them hope in moments such as the Babylonian exile, but also provided them direction towards their responsibility towards themselves and God. Zaehner et al (1979:12) point this saying that “Israel was to live as a nation as much as priests lived as a class and the prophets as individuals, like priests they should listen to the word of God and respond to it”.
“Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.' These are the words that you shall speak to the sons of Israel Exo. 19:5-6 NIV
However, history has proven that the Jewish people have been humiliated more than many and for longer while wandered without a land of their own. After the Roman empire sent them into exile they could only return in 1948, when the state of Israel was re-established. This essay will explore the history from the kingdom of David until the expulsion of the Jewish people from Israel, with the aim of questioning what could be the meaning of being the people chosen by God.
The History in a Nutshell of the Ancient Jewish Nation after King David
The Kingdom of David (1000 BC) and his son Salomon (960 BC) reflected the most splendorous time for the Jewish nation. David managed to consolidate Israel as a “reasonably powerful and prosperous Middle-Eastern nation” (Kruger et al, 2008:149) and established a more formalized form of religion. On the other hand, Solomon built the first temple in Jerusalem during his kingship, which became “the focus of religious devotion for many generations” (Kruger et al, 2008:151).
After Solomon died, his son Rehoboam was crown King (920 BC) and soon after, he lost the kingdom that extended from “from the Euphrates River in the north to Egypt in the south” (AICE, 2016). The kingdom of Solomon was divided into two regions, as stated by Kruger et al (2008:151), one at the north holding ten tribes of Israel and one at the south holding the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. These two kingdoms were conquered later by the Assyrians in the north and by the Babylonians in the south.
While the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom vanished forever the tribes of Judah and Benjamin clung “to their identity and religion during the exile in a strange land” (Kruger et al, 2008:151). The Babylonians destroyed the temple of Solomon and the Ark of the Covenant disappeared. The Jews went back to their homeland after this event, but the greatness of the Kingdom of David and Solomon was never recovered.
Summarizing in this paragraph, what happened after the exile in Babylonia, based on Kruger et al (2008:153-154), it can be said that the Jews attempted to recover their nation under the pressure of more powerful nations that invaded them several times. They returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the temple when King Cyrus of Persia conquered the Babylonians; even later they could still live in peace when Alexander the Great from Greece conquered the Persians. However, once Alexander the Great died the Seleucids tried to force the Jews to leave their beliefs and their culture, which caused the Maccabean wars that finally allowed the Jews to restore the temple (165 BC) and their practices until 63 BC when the Romans occupied the territory.
The Roman Empire and the Jewish Sects
The Roman Empire ruled the Palestine area since 63 BC until 410 CE when Rome finally was “invaded and sacked by the Barbarians” (Kruger et al, 2008:207). The Jewish culture survived these five centuries of Roman occupation, but not without suffering changes in their outlook to their relationship with God and the practice of Judaism.
The first reaction to the Roman occupation among Jews was to decide how to deal with the new government and preserve their identity. This is shown by the formation of several sects that had different approaches towards the Romans. The main two parties or sects were the Sadducees and Pharisees.
As explained by Gordon, et al (2004:195) and Kruger et al (2008:189) the Sadducees belonged to a high-class group which ideology was based only on the Written Torah with emphasis on the temple priesthood. On the other hand, the Pharisees, as they were called by the Sadducees meaning “the separated ones” (Gordon et al, 2004:195) based their authority on the Oral Torah which they considered was also given to Moses at Mount Sinai and was kept without modifications from generation to generation and transmitted by a chain of elders, prophets, and Scribes. For instance, the Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the body while the Sadducees rejected these type of beliefs because it is not included in the Written Torah. Another difference between these two groups was seen in their approach to the Roman government, while the Sadducees were prepared to compromise with the culture of the Romans, the Pharisees were not keen to do so, however, did not rebel violently against the empire.
Other two important sects, also described by Gordon, et al (2004:195) and Kruger et al (2008:189), were the Zealots and the Essenes. The Zealots were a sect that observed strict observance of the Torah and was politically active in the liberation movement of Israel, being not shy to use the violence for this mean.
The Essenes or the Qumran community was, in contrast to the other groups, pacific people who withdraw from the world and its pleasures to a life of poverty and ritual purity to the desert, though observing the Torah strictly as well. They lived in the hope of the arrival of the Messiah as indicated by Gordon, et al (2004:195) who states that “Scholars have argued for a half century over the possible influence of the Qumran community on the founding of another group, the Jesus movement that eventually would grow into Christianity” as many Jews believed he was the Messiah and that his kingdom was in heaven.
The period of the Roman Empire and its tyranny seemed to have caused unrest among Jews and several revolts were controlled by the Romans, one of them leading to the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. Summarizing again, based on Kruger et al (2008: 155-157) the developments after this event were as follows: the Sadducees lost power and influence while the Pharisees started to organise the Rabbinic Judaism, compiled the Hebrew bible (Tenach), created the Mishnah and the Palestinian Gemara (Talmud), established the worship in the synagogues, and generated year by year the Jewish calendar. Many Jews moved from Palestine to Babylonia and created a more comprehensive version of the Talmud, which is today’s the recognized book for the practitioners of Judaism.
There was another revolt led by Bar Kochba in 132 CE, who was recognized as the Messiah by the Rabbi Akiva. As narrated by Gordon, et al (2004:196) this revolt also ended in a devastating loss. The Romans took Jerusalem, destroyed it, rebuilt it as a Roman city and called Aelia Capitolina. The surviving Jews were not allowed to enter the city after this and were sold as slaves to the surrounding areas. The Diaspore began to exist until 1948 when the State of Israel was created.
Before and after Jesus crucifixion, there was clear antagonism between the Jews that rejected Jesus as the Messiah and the ones that accepted him as the King of the Jews, which grew even more once the Christian theology started to be influenced by the Greek philosophy (Kruger et al, 2008:157). The Jews, such as Saul of Tarsus, prosecuted fiercely the followers of Christ. This situation changed once several centuries later the Roman Emperor Constantine purportedly converted to Christianism and proclaimed Christianity as the official religion of the Empire. After this happened, rules and laws against the Jewish culture were enacted in the Council of Nicaea, however, it is reported by AICE (2016) that “Despite these troubles and tensions the Jews of Judea under Constantine's rule continued to function fairly normally”. However, there is literature reporting brutality against the Jews committed by Christians elsewhere in this time of their history.
After all the tribulations that the Jews have suffered there is a sense that God forgot his chosen people, most so after the impact of the Roman empire on the Jews, who became a Diaspora that did not have a land to be called their country. In fact, the Jews believed that most of their misfortunes came from their own disobedience but what happened in the Second World War draw a line and many questioned the existence of God. The asymmetry of the Holocaust went beyond any self-allocated punishment by the Jews. However, not all Jews stopped believing in God and Judaism has continued to evolve in the current times.
Smith et al (1986:201) brings the point that some Jews believe today that the concept of the chosen people was a historical need that is out-performed and therefore not needed anymore, on the other hand, some Jews believe that “God continues to need people who are set apart, peculiar in the sense of being God’s task force in history”. Smith et al (1986:201). Kruger et al (2008:152) also point at the text the suffering servant from Isaiah 53 and how some related it to “the nation of Israel that suffers on behalf of all humankind” as an explanation for their troubled destiny.
In this sense, Neuser et al (2001:426-427) describe the understanding of some Jews regarding their mission, as the chosen people of God, based on the text describing Israel as being “the prophet of the nations, in that it will bring them to salvation”. This task, as is explained by Nauser et al (2001:426), is meant to be accomplished by keeping God’s commandments and Law and by doing so, persuading the other nations that there is only one God, one that is universal to all people on Earth.
AICE (2016). www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org accessed on August 2016
Gordon M, et al (2004). Religions of the World. Santa Barbara -California. ABC-CLIO publishers.
Kruger J.S, Lubbe GJA, Steyn HC (2008). The human search for meaning, a multireligion introduction to the religions of humankind. Pretoria. Van Schaick Publishers.
Neuser J, et al (2001). The Blackwell reader in Judaism. Oxford. Blackwell.
Smith, H et al (1986). The illustrated world religions. New York. Harper San Francisco.
Zaehner R.C et al (1979). The concise encyclopedia of living faiths. London. Hutchinson and Co (Publishers) Ltd.