Jacob's Road Map: Biblical Judaism

We have looked so far at four major “world” religions, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism.  Each of these religions is alive today, and, while they are primarily “Eastern” religions, each has the potential to cross social and cultural boundaries in its attempt to win the hearts and minds of men and women.  We now move on to four very different religious faiths, those faiths that lie at the heart of Western civilization: Judaism, Christianity, Islam and what, for lack of a better name, we will call Secularism.

There are, of course, similarities between these faiths and the Eastern religions, but there are some radical contrasts as well.  Except for Secularism, the Western faiths are monotheistic: and this (as we shall see) makes for a major set of other differences.  But also important, the Western faiths are history-based: rooted in the idea that certain things happened in the past that have an impact on the present and will have an even greater impact in the future.

For Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the historical starting point is a man named Abraham.  According to the story in Genesis (modified considerably in Islamic tradition, by the way) Abraham initially lived in Mesopotamia.  He was closely associated with the Amorites who had begun to dominate Mesopotamia about this time (c. 1900 BC).  Abraham left Mesopotamia, settled for a time in what is today Syria, and then moved in to the "promised" land.  According to the Genesis story, Abraham made a covenant with God: he would leave behind the worship of other gods, and, in return, he and his descendants would acquire the land from between the "river of Egypt" to the Euphrates.  In addition, Abraham was promised that in his seed "all nations of the earth would be blessed."  In other words, the entire world was going to be changed for the better through Abraham and his descendants.

Right from the beginning, then, the Hebrews had the idea that, somehow, they were God's chosen people, and that it was God’s plan to change the world through them.  And it is interesting how much impact Abraham and his immediate family have had on subsequent history.  The stories of Abraham and his family have been told again and again and again.  Jews, Christians, and Moslems all look back to Abraham as the father of their faith, so for half the world's people Abraham remains an important figure while figures who, at the time, were much greater in power and influence have, for the most part, been forgotten.

Many of you are familiar with the stories of Abraham, his wife Sarah, their son Isaac, Isaac's wife Rebecca, the two sons of Isaac, Jacob and Esau, and some of you might even be able to name all 12 sons of Jacob! 

According to the Biblical story, one of the sons of Jacob, Joseph, is sold into slavery in Egypt.  Joseph, though, rises from slavery until he becomes 2nd in command to Pharaoh.  Unfortunately, there are no contemporary Egyptian records that would give us any extra light on this story.  It seems possible, certainly, that Joseph and (eventually) the rest of his family settle in Egypt during the time of the Hyksos, perhaps around 1700 BC.  The Hyksos, "shepherd kings," would have been very similar in culture to the Hebrews, and it does seem somewhat more likely that an outsider like Joseph would have the opportunity to advance during the Hyksos period than during a time when native Egyptians were in control. 

Eventually, though, the situation changes.  The Bible says that there arose a pharaoh who "knew not Joseph."  This may mean the return of native Egyptian rulers who didn't recognize any of the agreements made by the pharaohs of the Hyksos period.  In any case, the Hebrews somehow undergo a reversal of fortune and end up as slaves--perhaps during the reign of Ahmose around 1570 BC. 

Eventually, the Hebrews get a leader to deliver them from slavery: Moses.

According to the Biblical story, the Egyptians launched a program of infanticide to keep the number of male slaves at a minimum.  Moses was abandoned to the river, but rescued by Pharaoh's daughter who adopted him as her son.  Interestingly, the name Moses is in some ways appropriate to a member of the royal family.  Moses (Moshe in Hebrew) means "out of."  Egyptian Pharaohs of the time had this "moshe/mose" word as part of their names.  Raamses=Ra Mose, out of (or son of) the Egyptian god Ra.  Thutmose=Toth Mose, out of (or son of) the Egyptian god Toth.  Moses has only the "out of" part of the name, and it's interesting to speculate why that might be.

In any case, around 1300 BC or so, Moses, after a series of adventures (!), led the Israelites out of slavery in what is called the Exodus (a Greek name once again=the road out).  Moses gave them some important sources of ethical guidance and emotional fulfillment.  Moses gives them perhaps the finest law coded to come out of the Ancient Near East.  He also sets up the worship in the Tabernacle, uniting the people and giving them the sense that they are worshipping the one true god.  In general, the rest of the story is a story of ups and downs: up when the people of Israel follow Moses' laws and worship only the god of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, down when they start worshipping other gods and departing from the law.

Moses successor Joshua, for instance, challenges his people to serve God only ("Choose you this day whom ye will serve...as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord).  They agree, and, while Joshua leads them, they appear to be on the road to success, crossing over the Jordan and conqurering much of the Promised Land.

After Joshua's death, though, the people of Israel begin intermarrying with the Canaanites and adopting Canaanite religious practices including temple prostitution and child sacrifice.  This leads to societal breakdown, and it's not surprising that during this era (the time of the Judges, roughly 1250-1020 BC),  the Israelites suffer setback after setback, conquered and oppressed by Amalekites, Midianites, and, ultimately, the Philistines.  There are some bright spots under judges like Gideon, Deborah, and Samson, but the writer of the book of Judges talks about this period as a time of breakdown: "there was no king in those days and every man did that which was right in his own eyes."

Under Samuel, the last of the judges, things begin to shape up once again.  Eventually, Samuel, somewhat reluctantly, anoints a king for the Israelites--first Saul, and then David.  This is the beginning of the United Monarchy, a period when the 12 tribes of Israel are united under Saul, David, and David's son Solomon (1020-922 BC).

Under David and Solomon particularly, things seem to go well.  David is a great fighting king, and, by the end of his reign, Israel controlled most of the Promised Land.  Solomon takes the kingdom left by his father and makes it more splendid.  He constructs a huge temple in Jerusalem, and this becomes the focus of Hebrew worship, replacing the old tabernacle.  Solomon chooses diplomacy over warfare, and, during his reign, Israel becomes much wealthier than it had been before.

But Solomon, for all his wisdom, made some bad mistakes.  His basic policy: make marriages, not war.  He married women from leading families throughout Israel, trying to unite the nation with these family connections.  He also married women from surrounding nations, some nations subject to Israel at the time (Ammon, Edom, Moab) and some allied to Israel (Egypt).  Solomon ended up with 700 wives and 300 concubines, secondary wives.  But for Solomon's strategy to work, he has to keep these women happy.  It does no good to be married to Pharaoh's daughter if she is unhappy.  So how does one man keep 1000 women happy?  Well, you buy them things.  Solomon builds a temple for Pharaoh's daughter.  And then, of course, he has to build temples for all his other foreign wives.  And the wives want something more: they want Solomon to worship with them.  And he does.  This wrecks the main source of Israelite emotional fulfillment.  When they king himself starts turning to other gods, the unity created by the exclusive worship of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is broken.

Also, all this building is expensive.  Solomon has to raise taxes to sky-high levels, and he has to resort to forced labor to get all his building projects done.  This makes the people unhappy, and, after Solomon's death, the northern ten tribes break away and form the separate nation, Israel.  Judah remains loyal to the house of David, and so there are now two nations: Israel and Judah.  From this point onward, there's not much hope of political greatness.  The two nations are frequently at war with one another, and they have much more difficulty when wars with neighboring countries arise.

Eventually, Israel is defeated by the Assyrians (722 BC).  The Assyrians deport the people and bring in others.  This is when the northern ten tribes become the "lost" tribes of Israel.-

Judah survives the Assyrian assault, but, around 600 BC, the Chaldaens (Neo-Babylonians, or, in the Bible, just Babylonians) conquer them and, after putting down several revolts, decide to destroy Jerusalem and the temple and take the leading citizens captive into Babylon itself.

This could (and perhaps should) have been the end.  But during the Babylonian captivity, at least some of the Jews seemed to have learned the lesson.  They gave up the worship of other gods, and began focusing intently on the study of the scriptures.  In 536 BC, when the Persians conquered the Chaldaeans, they began going back to Judea.  Under Zerubabel and (later) Ezra, and Nehemiah, they rebuilt Jerusalem and the temple.  But more important, they built up themselves.  According to Jewish tradition (almost certainly true), Ezra led what came to be called the “great synagogue,” a group of Jewish scholars who guided the collection of the books that were eventually was called the Tanakh. By 400 BC (the time of the prophet Malachi), the Jewish canon was pretty much complete.  Malachi 3:15 says, “Then they that feared the LORD spake often one to another: and the LORD hearkened, and heard it, and a book of remembrance was written before him for them that feared the LORD, and that thought upon his name.”  This points to the Jewish tradition of synagogue study that remains the heart of Judaism to this day.

At the heart of this study: just a book, but a very special kind of book: a book (literally) to die for, the Tanakh.

Tanakh is short for the three divisions of the Hebrew Bible by Jewish reckoning: the Torah (law), the Neviim (prophets), and the Kituviim (writings).


The first book of the Torah is Genesis (Bershith in Hebrew).  It contains little of what we would call law, but it serves as important background to statute law, an analysis of human nature and human need—and of the nature of the world itself.  Genesis starts right at the beginning—a very good place to start!

Historians call accounts of the beginning of things creation myths. As Dr. Blanchard mentioned, a myth is not necessarily an untrue story, but rather a story that shows what a society considers to be the deepest truth about man and universe. Nearly all societies tell such myths and one could argue that, in a certain sense, we have creation myths today: two of them widely believed in our society: the Hebrew account in Genesis and the Darwinian theory of Evolution.  It’s important to understand here that what is at stake is *not* science but two very different concepts about man and his place in universe.

Probably the best way of looking at the earliest part of Genesis, though, is *not* as a creation myth but as anti-myth.  It is a direct challenge to the polytheistic world view that dominated the Ancient world when the book was written.

In beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, says Genesis.  Note that the writer could have simply said “God created everything” and left it at that.  But the writer goes on to specify each of the things God created. 

It’s important to note that many of things mentioned in Genesis 1 were regarded by the peoples of Mesopotamia as gods.  The writer is here affirming the monotheistic world view: the sun is not a god, it is a creation of the one God.  The moon is not a goddess: it is a creation of the one God.  The sky is not a god, nor is the earth.  Both are creations of the one God.

Note also the delineation of creative days.  Here too is a challenge to polytheistic practice.  Most ancient societies associated each day of the week with one of the seven “planets” (the sun, moon, and five visible planets), and associated those planets with particular gods.  This is still reflected in the names we give the days of the week!

The writer of Genesis is insisting that this is wrong: we should not honor the sun god on Sunday, the moon good on Monday, etc.  Note also that the writer talks about the importance of  a day of rest: here, the 7th day (Saturday), but idea of such a day of rest is reflected not only in the Jewish Saturday Sabbath, but the Christian Sunday (Lord’s Day) Sabbath, and the Moslem Friday Sabbath.

Note also the affirmation of the goodness of all created things—including human beings who are made in the image of God.  Particularly important is the idea that *women*, not just men, are created in God’s image—an idea we take for granted, but certainly not universal in the ancient world.  And note that there is a particular high view of mankind: we are not just the dust of the ground, but we have the spirit of God as well.

So, if God created all things good, what happened?  The writer of Genesis insists that the evils of this world come through human choices.  The temptation for Adam and Even is that they would “know” good and evil.  Novak gets this entirely wrong.  He thinks Adam and Eve were somehow enlightened by their choice and that this enlightenment had negative consequences. What’s really going on here is very different.  “Knowing” good and evil here means “deciding” on good and evil.  Adam and Eve would *decide* what’s good and evil for themselves.  The writer suggests that this very plausible idea (everyone chooses for themselves what’s good and evil according to their own standards) is potentially very destructive.  Adam and Eve see no reason not to eat: but they soon find unexpected consequences of their actions.

1.  Hardship, death, a broken relationship with nature, and a broken relationship with God

2. A distorted relationship between men and women.  “Your desire will be to your husband” means what *you* want, he will have. Men will have power over women and women won't like it.

3. Eve is told god would greatly multiply her sorrow “in her conception.”  Most translators take this to mean the pains of childbirth, but I don't think this is right. The sorrow is not so much in child-bearing (which would be a different Hebrew word) but in the *children* she conceives--child-rearing won't be nearly as happy as it should be (cf. Cain and Abel).

Genesis also suggests a remedy for the evils of the world around us: obedience. This is particularly clear through the contrast of Abraham and Adam. Adam disobeys in a simple thing, while Abraham obeys in progressively more difficult things--leaving his native country and his goods, sacrificing Isaac. Christians, of course, see in this foreshadowing of their own teaching on  faith--faith as obedience to God no matter what.

 One sees also the influence of Genesis in the many familiar stories in the book, stories of Noah, Sarah, Jacob and Esau, etc. 


“Deuteronomy” is Greek for “second law” or, rather, the repetition of the law.  It is actually the fifth book of the Torah. It is set toward the end of Moses’ life.  Moses has gathered his people together, given them a synopsis of their history, and then goes through the law again, at the end asking for the people of Israel to commit themselves to following the law and renewing their covenant with God.

Among the laws repeated are the Ten Commandments, originally given in Exodus 20. These commandments are an excellent example of Tanakh influence.  While the laws of Hammurabi were lost for 2000 years, these laws were remembered, and used to be posted on most classroom walls in America and learned by heart by many/most people.  Unlike Mesopotamian laws (and laws later in Deuteronomy) there are no specific penalties attached—possibly indicating that these laws are universal principles meant for all societies.

Also especially important in Deuteronomy are a couple of verses in Deuteronomy 6, verses Jews call the Shema, “Here, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.  And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and all thy soul, and all the strength, and all they might.”  Jews (including Jesus) regard this as the greatest commandment.


The book of Isaiah is part of the Neviim, the Prophets, and it too shows the influence of the Tanak.

Isaiah lived in a very troubled time in the history of his people.  When he began his mission, the Northern kingdom of Israel was just about to be destroyed by Assyria.  The southern kingdom, Judah, was in trouble as well.  Another problem was social and economic.  A change in agriculture (moving from grain crops to olives and grapes for oil and wine for export) meant a great increase in trade, and wealthy landowners and tradesmen were doing quite well.  But small farmers were going into debt and losing their lands—and often their freedom.  Isaiah talks of the poor being sold for the price of a pair of shoes: small debts one couldn’t pay often meant slavery.

Isaiah takes the problems his people face and addresses them very differently than would the religious leaders of other nations.  The general rule when trying to ensure societal success was sacrifice.  Religious rituals were the key to getting the gods on your side.  Isaiah says no.  God doesn’t care about the rituals: He cares how we treat one another, and, especially, how we treat widows and orphans—those who can’t protect themselves.  Much concern about social justice even in today’s society goes back to Isaiah and the propets.

Isaiah is also important because of his affirmation of the idea that, even in the bleakest of circumstances, there is hope.  Isaiah is a *very* difficult book because it alternates bleak passages with joyful ones.  This is deliberate: Isaiah can see the awful things that are going to happen to his people, but he promises also future hope.  Passages like Isaiah 9 talk of a messiah, one anointed by God to deliver his people.  Christians take such passages as references to Jesus, especially the passage in Isaiah 53 which looks like a prediction of the sacrificial death of Christ.  Jews, of course, don’t agree with this interpretation, but note that the very idea at the heart of Christianity (a messiah who would pay for the sins of the world) comes out of Isaiah.


In Jewish reckoning, the Psalms are part of the Kituviim, the writings.  What we have are 150 songs, prayers, prophecies, historical summaries—essentially the Jewish hymnal.  The Psalms are likewise used by Christians in worship: the first book published in America was the Bay Psalm Book, English translations of these Psalms. 

Worship affects people’s hearts deeply, and the Psalms shows Tanak influence, not just on how we think about things, but on how we feel about things.  The 23rd Psalm, for instance, is one that many turn to for comfort in the face of death. 

Within the last hundred years, we have rediscovered many of the songs from Ancient Egypt: beautiful songs.  But the Hebrew Psalms didn’t have to be rediscovered: these songs have been in constant use since the time they were written—key to the Tanakh as providing for a “world” religion.


Daniel is regarded by the Jews as part of the writings, and by Christians as part of the prophets. 

Daniel deals with a very important question, the problem of evil. Why is there evil and suffering in world? 

Didn't Genesis already address this? Yes, but the answer in Genesis is only partial. Genesis says people suffer because they do something wrong. Often enough, this is true.  Someone downs a bunch of beers, gets in a car, shoots off at 80 miles, and ends up in an accident that paralyzes them for life.

We wish it was always true that people only suffer when they do something wrong. But, unfortunately, it just isn't. Perfectly innocent people suffer.  The guy that downs the beers walks away without a scratch, but wipes out a family of five in a station wagon. Good people suffer—sometimes more than bad people. This is central question that concerns author of Daniel: why do bad things happen to good people?  This is a vital question, and, unless it can be answered, monotheism has very little chance.  How can one believe in a good, loving, all-powerful God when such horrible things happen to good people in this world?  Daniel suggests an answer.

The beginning of the books of Daniel is absolutely shocking.  The Chaldaeans, the most corrupt of ancient peoples, conquer God’s people, the Jews.  The destroy Jerusalem. They destroy the temple.  The do horrible things to their captives (remember the kind of things they Assyrians did).  Daniel and his friends have lost everything.  They’ve been castrated, made into eunuchs. They’ve even lost their names.  Each of these men had had a name honoring the God of Israel.  Daniel = my God is judge, Mishael = who is like God? Azariah = Jehovah is my strength, Hannaniah = God is gracious.  Their names are changed: Belteshazzar honors the Babylonian god Baal, Abednego honors the Babylonian god Nebo, and Shadrach honors the god Aku.  Mishach = who is like Aku?  For the rest of their lives, these young men will be addressed by a name equivalent (in our terms) to “Satan is strong,” or “Lucifer’s son.”  

Very bad things have happened to good people! So what do you do in such circumstances?

1.  Obey god anyway.  Daniel and his friends follow Jewish dietary laws—and are blessed for it.

2.  Be patient.  The story of Nebuchadnezzar's (lost) dream shows that God can give wisdom no other source can, but it also has the important message that, though cruel and corrupt kings may rule now, in the end, God will establish his own kingdom.

3.  Don’t give in. Never give up, never surrender.  Note the story of Nebuchadnezzar's image. When threatened with the fiery furnace Daniel’s friends affirm God’s ability to deliver them, but insist that, even if God doesn’t deliver them, they won't bow down.

4. Remember that earthly powers aren’t what they seem.  In the story of Belshazzar’s party, Belshazzar mocks God, he and his party friends drinking out of the cups that had been dedicated to the God of Israel.  God writes on the wall: Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin.

Daniel interprets: “mina, mina, shekel, half-a-shekel.”  Coins commonly used in the ancient world. In other words, “nickel, dime, quarter” or “two bits, four bits, six bits, a dollar.” Daniel interprets this as a series of puns, the idea being that Belshazzar is nothing more than a joke as far as God is concerned.  

After Belshazzar’s defeat, the Persians take over, a people far more sympathetic to Hebrews, people who even let the Jews go back and rebuild their temple.  But even here, Daniel runs into some trouble (cf. the story of Daniel and the lions Den). Even good earthly rulers are not the ultimate answer!

Now all this pretty clear and straightforward. The next section of Daniel far more difficult, a very complicated series of visions. What’s happening is that Daniel is searching for an answer to problem of evil. He fasts and he prays, and gets a series of visions. But these visions aren’t at all reassuring: mostly are predictions of  worse things to come. But mixed with these, there is a promise of something else, the eventual establishment of a righteous kingdom where everything is done in the way it should be. But what good does this do for those who live in meantime? Daniel persists, and finally gets the answer in Daniel 12.

Daniel is told that there will eventually be time of trouble worse than anything that had come before.  But after that, deliverance.  And something more: a resurrection where the righteous would be rewarded and the evil punished.

This a partial answer to the problem of evil. Certainly in an eternal kingdom, God can make up to you anything that's gone wrong in your life. Even the worst of things aren't so bad from this perspective: watching your friends and family killed, being taken to a foreign land and castrated isn't going to look quite so bad after a million years of nothing but happiness. But still, the answer is not quite satisfying. Why did god allow the evil in the first place?

Daniel's answer is in Chapter 12 vs. 3 and 10.  The righteous will be purified. They that turn many to righteousness shine as the stars forever and ever.

There is something in all the things that he has gone through that makes Daniel a better person. Enormous amount of pressure changes a lump of coal into a diamond. God's answer to Daniel-- I'm turning you into a diamond. I'm turning you into pure gold--into something beautiful that will last forever and ever.

An adequate answer to the problem of evil? Well, at least as good an answer as anyone has ever been a able to come up with, and an answer that Jews and Christians accept to this day.