History of Judah and Diaspora
When the Lord directed Abraham to the chosen land, he also promised him that through his countless seed, all nations and families of the earth would be blessed. Abraham may have asked himself whether all the nations and families would come to his descendants and receive these blessings or whether his descendants would have to be dispersed among these peoples. One thousand years would pass before this question was answered.
The scriptures tell us that the descendants of most of Abraham’s twenty-one grandsons remained in the lands near Palestine. Twelve of these grandsons were the sorts of Ishmael, to whom the Arabs look as their ancestor. Seven of the grandsons descended from the six sons of Abraham’s third wife, Keturah, and we are told practically nothing of them. The remaining two grandsons were Isaac’s sons, Esau and Jacob (or Israel).
Esau was the progenitor of the Edomites, who dwelt south of the Dead Sea and who were often at odds with the Israelites. Jacob (Israel) had twelve sons, whose descendants were known as the twelve tribes or the house of Israel. The literal twelve tribes were named after these sons: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Joseph, and Benjamin. However, when Canaan was divided among the house of Israel, the tribe of Levi was scattered among the people to assist in the priestly functions. The tribes of Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, therefore acquired the land inheritance of the Levites and of their father, Joseph.
In 721 B.C., the kingdom of Israel, comprising ten tribes, was led north by the Assyrians. There remained in the kingdom of Judah the tribe of Judah, half of the tribe of Judah, half of the tribe of Benjamin, a number of Levites, and fragments of the other tribes. All of these Israelites became known as Jews, after the predominant tribe of Judah. So when we speak of Jews, we do not mean the whole house of Israel or even just the whole tribe of Judah, but the tribe of Judah along with small numbers of other tribes, especially Benjamin and Levi.
After Babylonia replaced Assyria as the political power in the Near East, prophets warned the people that their kingdom of Judah and its capital, Jerusalem, would also fall unless they returned to God. The Lord directed one of these prophets, Lehi, to take his family from Jerusalem to another promised land that we know as America. The Book of Mormon relates how the family of this descendant of Joseph and Manasseh became two great nations in America.
Lehi’s family was not the only group to leave Jerusalem before its fall. Egypt had established nominal control over Judah after defeating King Josiah. Many Jews went to Egypt and some of them settled on the island of Elephantine in the Nile River, where they guarded the Pharaoh’s southern boundary. They built their own temple and maintained contact with the Jerusalem community.
Babylonia became Judah’s new master in 601 B.C. when Nebuchadnezzar’s army defeated the Egyptians at Carchemish. He then sought to punish Judah when it showed signs of rebelling. In 597 B.C., Jerusalem was plundered and the leading citizens were taken to Babylon. Even without her warriors, artisans, craftsmen, and nobles, Judah still rebelled.
When Zedekiah ceased to pay tribute, Nebuchadnezzar sought to destroy the kingdom of Judah. He besieged Jerusalem for a year and a half, and many Jews perished from hunger and pestilence. Many sought to escape from the city, but few were successful. These few joined many Jews from the surrounding areas who fled to Egypt. Others scattered to the lands east and south of Judah, where they were often persecuted by longtime enemies.
Zedekiah himself was fleeing east as the city fell, but he was captured near Jericho, and after witnessing the slaying of his captured sons and other Jewish leaders, he was blinded and led captive to Babylon. Meanwhile, the temple was razed and Jerusalem destroyed. A second greater exodus of Jews to Babylon began.
Unknown to most of the world, one small group led by Mulek, a son of Zedekiah, successfully fled from the Babylonians. We are not told of his group’s route or means of travel except that they journeyed in the wilderness and were led by the Lord across the great waters to America. Over 400 years later their descendants were discovered by Mosiah, a descendant of Lehi. The Mulekites had forgotten their religion and language, while Lehi’s people had maintained theirs because of the records they had brought with them.
A weak remnant of Jews remained in Judah. Gedaliah, a respected Jew, was appointed their royal governor by Nebuchadnezzar. Fugitives from the surrounding lands joined these Jews and sought to establish a new way of life. When fanatics assassinated Gedaliah within a few months, hordes of refugees, fearful of the consequences of this latest defiance, fled to Egypt, taking with them the aged prophet Jeremiah.
Thus ended the last vestige of David’s and Solomon’s empire. The Jewish population had shrunk to approximately 125,000, of which only a feeble remnant remained in Palestine. The rest were scattered in three continents around the world, where their descendants would remain until today. The largest numbers of these children of Abraham and Moses settled in the Euphrates and Nile river valleys, whence these two leaders had once come.
Abraham had first journeyed to the Holy Land over a dozen centuries earlier. Moses had led the house of Israel back to the chosen land seven centuries earlier. But now the story of the children of Israel seemed to have come to an end. They had no government, no land, and they were scattered around the world.
Numerous other peoples, including the ten tribes, have become lost to history. Why are the Jews still with us today?
The children of Israel probably would have lost their identity if it were not for the Jews of Babylonia. Here the wealthiest and most cultured Jewish classes lived. Here also Ezekiel and Daniel had visions of a glorious new age for the house of Israel. Without their temple and its sacrifices, the Jews gathered in small groups for study and prayer. They soon erected special houses for these meetings, and thus the synagogue was created.
Here, as in America, the importance of having written copies of the scriptures became evident. Perhaps for the first time they grasped the full significance of the words of the prophets. Many people recognized the consequences of their past unrighteousness, and they longed for another chance in the Promised Land.
This chance came in 538 B.C. when Cyrus, the Median-Persian king, allowed their return. They rebuilt Jerusalem and constructed a second temple which would last 500 years, a century longer than its predecessor. Priests replaced kings as the rulers, and Judea, a small state of perhaps only twenty square miles, became a theocratic republic. Ezra the scribe convoked a “Great Council” of elders, which later developed into the Sanhedrin. He also stressed a puritan observance of Mosaic law as contained in the Torah (the Pentateuch, or first five books of the Old Testament).
The adherents to Mosaic law experienced their strongest challenge after Alexander the Great introduced the Hellenistic culture to eastern Asia. The Greek culture attracted many Jews, especially in Alexandria, where they translated the scriptures into a Greek version known as the Septuagint. Even in Judea, Greek schools, sports, fashions, speech, and philosophy became popular, particularly among the young. But Greek philosophy was not easily reconciled with the Hebrew spirit. Soon the puritans and the Hellenists quarreled, as friends were separated and families divided. In the long run, victory seemed assured to the Hellenists, comprised of the ambitious, the young, the aristocrats, and even some of the priests. However, the Seleucid ruler of the Greco-Syrian state to which Judea was annexed did not want to wait.
In 169 B.C., Antiochus Epiphanes attempted to Hellenize all Jews by force. They united under the Maccabees, who directed a surprisingly successful rebellion against the Seleucids. For the first time since the Babylonian exodus, national independence was restored to Judea. Judaism also found new life as the Jews spread their teachings to neighboring peoples in one of the rare proselytizing periods of Jewish history. This political freedom and missionary zeal would be short-lived as a new European power was expanding from its origin on the Tiber River toward Asia.
The Jews were familiar with Rome through their colonies in the larger Greek cities. They probably also had a community in Rome before Judea came under her power in 63 B.C. Roman rule, however mild, was bitter to the Jews after they had tasted freedom. They often harassed the Romans, who sought increasingly more stringent means of suppressing the rebellions in this petty Judean state. The Jews in Rome were also persecuted as the writer Apion, a Hellene from Alexandria, spread rumors about supposed Jewish customs.
One tale was that each year the Jews fattened a Greek captive in their temple before killing him with special rites and curses against the Greeks. (This ritual-murder type of slander was used throughout the Middle Ages and even in modern Russian and Arab history as a pretext for anti-Jewish persecutions.) Tiberius ordered four thousand Roman Jews expelled to Sardinia and their synagogue stripped of cult utensils. This was the first of innumerable persecutions for the Jews in Europe.
At this same time, Christ was living in Galilee. As Christianity grew after his sojourn on earth, a group of Jewish zealots, centered in Galilee, rebelled against Rome. They captured Masada, Jerusalem, and territory in Judea and Galilee. Only after Nero dispatched Vespasian, a successful general in Germany and Britain, did the Romans regain control. He first captured Galilee, which had been under the command of Josephus, who then retired to write his Jewish history. After Vespasian became emperor, his son Titus completed the conquest, and in A.D. 70 Jerusalem and her temple were again destroyed.
A new Judaism emerged from the ruins. The Jews no longer had a home, a temple, nor kings and priests, so they now turned to the teachers of the Mosaic law, the scholars. Schools in Mesopotamia became prominent, especially after the communities in Palestine and Egypt were weakened in later anti-Roman rebellions. These academies brought forth the Talmud (the Torah, along with numerous commentaries), which became the basis for religious and social life among the Jews. The rabbi became the spiritual head of each community as he interpreted and taught the Mosaic law. Jewish communities soon appeared all over Europe as the Jews followed the Roman conquests. The Jews in Europe later became a distinct and underprivileged minority after Christianity had united all the other peoples.
The Jews were never so singled out in Asia and Africa, where numerous Christian sects along with other religions were practiced. Even after the rise of Islam, Judaism was but one of many religious minorities, each of which retained many social and religious privileges. Under the tolerant Moslem shield, Jewish philosophy and science reached its zenith in Spain during the Middle Ages. By A.D. 1050, Spain had replaced Mesopotamia as the Jewish cultural center. Although more Jews lived in Asia and Africa, the European Jews were richer and had better schools.
The Spanish-Jewish culture extended into Provence in southern France and into the Rhine River valley, with smaller communities in the rest of Europe and England. The European Christian tradition prohibited the Jews from owning land and restricted their vocations and civil rights. Although petty rulers and fanatics incited periodic persecutions, they lived in comparative peace.
The crusades dispelled this peaceful image, as “Christian” armies destroyed whole Jewish communities by killing all their inhabitants and burning their homes and synagogues. Those jealous of Jewish wealth and fiery evangelists easily convinced the army bands that the blasphemous enemy was not only in the Holy Land, but also within their own midst. The close ties between the Jews and their cultural center in Moslem-controlled Spain added further proof that the Jews were only spies of the infidel.
In 1096, 12,000 Jews perished in Germany and others died in Bohemia and Hungary as the crusaders swept toward Constantinople and then Palestine. Three years later they conquered Jerusalem and drove all its Jews into a synagogue, where they burned them alive. Jewish communities throughout Europe suffered before the crusades ended. Popes, kings, and nobles often sought to protect the Jews, but they were usually helpless before the mobs and marauding armies.
England remained peaceful during the first and second crusades. As Richard the Lion-hearted was crowned in 1189, the first anti-Jewish persecutions broke out. It began when the fanatical Archbishop of Canterbury suggested that the king should not accept coronation gifts from the Jews and that they should be expelled from the palace because of their religion. The rumor soon spread through London that the king desired the humiliation and destruction of the Jews, which many citizens then initiated, resulting in murders and the burning of a part of the city. Richard restored order, but the scenes were repeated throughout England after he went to France to begin the third crusade. The religious zeal of the crusaders and citizens, along with an envy for the Jewish properties, resulted in a total expulsion of all Jews in 1290. They would not return to England until 1657.
The Holy Roman Empire, France, and other European countries soon followed this pattern, although later rulers would sometimes rescind earlier expulsion orders. As Europe expelled her Jews, new havens became available in Poland and Turkey, where their artisan and middle-class skills were valued and sought for. Spain particularly missed these skills after she expelled her Jews in 1492. Eastern Europe now became the center of Jewish life. These Eastern European Jews, or Ashkenazim, as they were called, soon developed distinct traditions and a new language that separated them from the Spanish Jews elsewhere. The language was a High German-Hebrew-Slavic dialect written in Hebrew characters and known as Yiddish. The Spanish or Sephardic Jews spoke Ladino, a Spanish-Hebrew dialect.
Most of the Ashkenazim lived in ghettos that had existed as early as the eleventh century. The Jews first developed their own ghettos out of a desire to live among their own people. Later, state laws segregated them into certain city sections, where they enjoyed an autonomous life in a medieval atmosphere. Not until the eighteenth century would there be such men as the mystic Baal Shem Tov, the scholar Elijah of Vilna, and the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, who together would break the chains of the Jewish Middle Ages hundreds of years after Christian Europe had already emerged from its dark age.
By 1750, one-half of the world Jewish population of three million lived in Europe. Large concentrations also lived in Lithuania, the Balkans, Asiatic Turkey (especially Constantinople), Egypt, and the Austrian and German provinces. Smaller communities existed in Africa, Asia, Italy, France, Holland, and England. Fewer than 2,000 Jews lived in the North American British colonies in the decade before their revolution. In Rhode Island, their small numbers enjoyed more religious freedom than anywhere else in the world.
The French Revolution and Napoleon’s conquest of Europe promised new freedoms to Jews everywhere. However, the reactionary leaders after Napoleon repealed the newly granted civil rights, and old restrictions and ghettos were reestablished in Germany and Austria. Having tasted freedom, many German Jews migrated to the United States. Others followed when towns established limits on the number of Jewish marriages and households during the population explosion of the industrial revolution.
In America, these German Jews followed the general migration across the country as they settled in the Midwest and California. They reformed their religious practices and were well along the way to absorption within the American Christian community when a vast horde of Russian Jews descended upon New York and the eastern industrial cities, following the Russian pogroms of the 1880s. A U.S. Jewish population of 250,000 in 1870 grew to one million before 1900. More pogroms sent whole communities to the U.S., and in the single year of 1906, over 150,000 Jews entered America. Three million Jews lived in the United States on the eve of World War I, more than in any other nation. The war slowed down the immigration, but it picked up during the postwar Polish and Russian harassments; the United States established strict immigration quotas in 1924 and 1927. A last minor Jewish influx occurred during the 1930s, when a number of skilled German Jews were allowed to escape Nazi restrictions.
After the Nazis reduced the world Jewish population by one-third (from 18 million to 12 million), the U.S. Jews assumed the role of world Jewish leadership. The state of Israel would soon challenge this role. Her Jewish population had grown from 650,000, when she became a nation in 1948, to double that number within three years due to the influx of refugees from Nazi concentration camps along with Jews from all over the world. This growth slowed down when Communist countries began restricting emigration. Most of the later immigrants were poor, untrained refugees from Arab and Oriental countries.
Israel has become a strong state, but it is a long way from being the spokesman for world Jewry, for it is still weak not only politically but also financially and numerically. The modern world Jewish population is concentrated in three main areas: approximately one-half in the United States, one-fourth in Russia, and one-fourth in Israel. In fact, as many Jews live in New York City (two and one-half million) as in the whole state of Israel. Significant Jewish communities also live in England, Argentina, France, Canada, Romania, and Morocco.
The center of Jewish life has shifted in many directions since it left Jerusalem over 2,500 years ago. Perhaps only two major Jewish migrations remain: the release of Russian Jews to Israel, and increased emigration of American Jews to Israel (who thus far have moved only in small numbers). Unless the status of American Jews changes drastically, it appears that future Jews will look in two directions for leadership: Zion (albeit New York City rather than Jackson County, Missouri) and Jerusalem.
Judah through the Centuries
Ann N. Madsen and Barnard N. Madsen, “Judah through the Centuries,” Ensign, Jan. 1982, pg 20
On the night of 21 September 1823 the angel Moroni quoted these words to the young Prophet Joseph Smith, saying that they were “about to be fulfilled” (see JS—H 1:40):
“And it shall come to pass in that day, that the Lord shall set his hand again the second time to recover the remnant of his people. …
“And he shall set up an ensign for the nations, and shall assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.
“The envy also of Ephraim shall depart, and the adversaries of Judah shall be cut off: Ephraim shall not envy Judah, and Judah shall not vex Ephraim.” (Isa. 11:11-13.)
As latter-day events unfold we will understand more about the partnership between the descendants of Joseph and Judah. (See Ezek. 37:16-17, 22.) But in the spirit of preparation for that which is to come, it is clear that we of Joseph need to understand more about our brothers and sisters of Judah: to understand not only that we have a common father, a common heritage, and a common destiny, but to understand also the history and religion of those whom the Lord calls “my people.” (See 2 Ne. 29:5.)
The Origin of the JewsThe word Jew is derived from Judah, the name of the fourth son of Israel. In biblical times it was used with reference to those who were left in the southern kingdom (called Judah) after the downfall of the northern kingdom (called Israel) in 722 B.C., when ten tribal units were taken into captivity. Judah was therefore considered a geographical area and a nation; its inhabitants were Judahites, or Jews. It is for this reason that Lehi and his children were called Jews—they came from Judah. (See 1 Ne. 5:12; 2 Ne. 25:5-6.) Later, during the years of dispersion, the term Jew took on an ethnic connotation. With no homeland, the scattered Jews still retained their identity; they became a people in exile.
A Jew, then, is not only a member of a particular lineage or of a religious group. Even by modern definitions, the term is applicable to a number of groups. For example, by Israeli law, a Jew is one who is born of a Jewish mother and who has not embraced another faith; however, a convert to the Jewish religion is “adopted in” through baptism in the same sense that we understand the adoption of Israel in the Church, and he, too, links himself with the collective past. This does not mean that all Jews are religious or that they all share common beliefs. It is possible to be both Jewish and an atheist. Indeed, Judaism today is more an ethnic affiliation and a religion of customs and practices than a faith of doctrines. Therefore, being a Jew, writes one rabbi (Morris N. Kertzer), can be a matter of belonging, believing, or behaving. (See Leo Rosten, ed., Religions of America, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975, p. 143.) More than anything else, being a devout Jew is a way of life.
The modern believing Jew traces his family and religious origins back to Abraham, who was promised that in him and his descendants “all the families of the earth [would] be blessed.” (Gen. 28:14.)
But if to modern Jews Abraham marks the beginning of the covenant people, Sinai marks the high point in the Jewish consciousness. The yearly Passover not only celebrates the sparing of Israel’s firstborn, but also recalls the Sinai covenant which made Israel a distinctive and chosen people. In Jewish history, Sinai marks the beginning of Judaism—the religion of the Jewish people.
Because of their wide dispersion (see Lev. 26:33; Deut. 4:27; Deut. 28:64) which modern Jews refer to as the Diaspora, Jews live in practically every nation in the world.
From Moses to the Exile (c. 1400 B.C. to 600 B.C.)The history of Israel from Egypt to the Exile can be outlined briefly as follows: from slavery to tribal confederacy to monarchy to separation to captivity. After the Exodus, the Israelites settled in the land of Canaan, the land given to their father Abraham. (See Gen. 17:8.) The land was divided up among the tribes (see LDS Bible, map 5); the Levites, the bearers of the priesthood, were given no specific area of land because they were needed everywhere the Israelites gathered to worship.
After the period of the judges, a time of confederacy among the tribes, Saul became Israel’s first king. (See LDS Bible, map 6.) Later David and his son Solomon reigned as kings in Israel. (See LDS Bible, maps 7 and 8.) This period is still looked upon as the Golden Age of Israel’s history: the Israelites were in their land, the kingdom was united, and it was a time of general prosperity. In the days of Solomon, the great temple was erected to house the ark of the covenant, which, until that time, had been placed in another sanctuary. Jerusalem, both as the political and spiritual capital of Israel, became the lodestone of its faith.
After Solomon’s death, in 922 B.C., the kingdom was divided between Rehoboam, Solomon’s son, and Jeroboam, a rebel in the north. Israel in the north and Judah in the south alternately warred and allied with each other over a period of two hundred years. Then in 722 B.C. the northern kingdom fell to the Assyrians; ten tribal units were taken into captivity, while northern refugees and the kingdom of Judah remained in the south.
Over this period, beginning with Moses and ending with Jeremiah, the distinguishing features of the religion were prophets, priesthood, the promised land, and the temple. But from the “holy nation” foreseen by the Lord at Sinai (see Ex. 19:6), Israel had become by the eighth century B.C. a “sinful nation” that had “forsaken the Lord.” (Isa. 1:4.)
“If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land,” wrote Isaiah. “But if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured with the sword: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.” (Isa. 1:19-20.)
The northern kingdom fell, and approximately 122 years later, in the first year of the reign of Zedekiah, “there came many prophets,” among them Lehi, “prophesying unto the people that they must repent, or the great city Jerusalem must be destroyed.” (1 Ne. 1:4.) Lehi and his family fled, and Jerusalem fell in 587 B.C. to the Babylonians—the temple was looted and destroyed and the people of Judah were taken into captivity. Judaism was further diluted in Babylon because the Jews were without a temple and were surrounded by an alien culture: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. … How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” (Ps. 137:1, 4.)
From the Exile to the Time of ChristLehi and the Nephites preserved not only the brass plates (the written word), but also the other features of the religion of Israel when they fled Jerusalem and came to the New World: they had prophets, priesthood, prophecy, and temples. And, in reliving the ancient history of their people, they had a new promised land with Lehi as an Abrahamic-patriarch. Descendants of Joseph, they fulfilled the prophecy given to Joseph by Jacob that his posterity would, like branches, “run over the wall.” (Gen. 49:22.) As the publication of the Book of Mormon shows, their history and achievements would play an important part in the Restoration in the last days. (See 2 Ne. 3:5, 12-24.)
Meanwhile, in the Old World, Cyrus conquered Babylon and allowed the Jewish exiles to return to their land and rebuild their temple.
“And all the people gathered themselves together as one man … and they spake unto Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded to Israel. …
“And he read therein … from the morning until midday, before the men and the women, and those that could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the law. …
“So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.” (Neh. 8:1, 3, 8.)
This began the major transformation of Judaism—from a temple-centered religion to one focusing on the synagogue; from one with an organized priesthood to one with rabbis (teachers) not claiming any priesthood; from sacrifices in the temple to a religious life centered around the synagogue, study, and prayer. In subsequent cultures came the Pharisees, who wanted the law directly accessible to the common people. They resisted the idea that one must be a member of the temple priesthood to study the law, and they interpreted the scriptures liberally.
The Sadducees, on the other hand, represented the “establishment,” including the temple priesthood and the aristocracy. Their more conservative views centered around the temple, the priesthood, and exact application of the Mosaic law.
A third faction, the Essenes, who inhabited the desert settlement called Qumran and authored the Dead Sea Scrolls, rejected both of the other groups, tracing their authority back to Zadok, David’s high priest.
These groups were in vigorous conflict at the time of Jesus, the primary conflict centering around the temple priesthood and authority of those whose records we now possess. Only the Essenes claimed to have revelation.
During this entire period, Judah was subject to foreign domination—first by Babylon, then by Persia (although they were fairly autonomous under Cyrus), followed by Greece (except for the period of the Maccabean revolt), then Rome.
During the Time of Christ“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem … how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!
“Behold, your house is left unto you desolate.
“For I say unto you, Ye shall not see me henceforth, till ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.” (Matt. 23:37-39.)
Prior to the birth of the Savior, Judaism or the religion of Judah was in a state of apostasy similar to what was found in Christianity at the time of Joseph Smith. In fact, the Lord has brought the same indictment against churches of our day as he brought against Judah of his own time. (Compare JS—H 1:19 with Matt. 15:8-9.)
Lacking a living voice, the Jews were dependent on the written and oral traditions. In contrast, Christ taught “as one that had authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:22), who were always quoting others to support their views. “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, …” Jesus taught on the Mount, “But I say unto you …” (Matt. 5:21, 22, italics added.)
The Pharisaic Jews who prided themselves in their knowledge of law and tradition were fervent in their rejection of Jesus. What did he mean, they wondered, when he said he had tried to gather the children of Israel in the past? They didn’t understand that the God at Sinai, the Holy One of Israel, was Jesus Christ, that observance of the law of Moses was to prepare them and point them to Christ. (See Matt. 5:17-18; John 5:46-47.) They were expecting a mighty king-Messiah to come and release them from political bondage under the Romans; not understanding the freedom the Lord offered, they rejected him as the true Messiah.
This period was characterized by religious confusion and disintegration. There had been a renewal of prophecy in the period prior to the Savior’s birth and for a short time following his ascension, but it was largely ignored or discounted. The scriptures of this period were produced almost entirely by Christ’s disciples, who were seen as a small Jewish sect—only one of many schisms. Then, with the destruction of the temple by the Romans in A.D. 70, the Jewish Levites and priests of Judaism were left without a function, with no way to fulfill the parts of the law which deal with sacrifice and temple ritual. Forty years after the Savior’s crucifixion, what remained of Judaism were the Jews and their law.
However, on the American continent a faithful remnant of Israel—Nephites and some Lamanites—had prepared for the coming of the Messiah. (See 3 Ne. 10:10-19.) When he came, he taught them that the law of Moses had been fulfilled (see 3 Ne. 9:15-22; 3 Ne. 11:10-15; 4 Ne. 1:12); the Atonement foreshadowed in the ancient records had taken place. It was a historical fact. No longer were types and shadows necessary to prepare the minds of the people. The act of redemption had taken place in a lonely garden and on a hill outside the walls of Jerusalem. The Son of God had been crucified and resurrected. The suffering Servant had given his life for the sheep. (See Isa. 53.)
During Judaism’s Interpretive Period“Be careful in judgment: set up many scholars, and make a hedge about the law.” (Motto of the Great Assembly.)
According to Jewish tradition, the written commandments, found in Genesis through Deuteronomy (the Law, or Torah), were accompanied by oral interpretations when they were given to Moses on Sinai. Jews believe that the oral law passed down by word of mouth from Moses to Joshua, and on to the leaders, to the prophets, and to the Men of the Great Assembly which, according to tradition, consisted of Ezra and one hundred twenty eminent scholars. This oral law eventually took precedence over the prophets, since after the Babylonian captivity the Jews considered prophets only as messengers or spokesmen who reminded them to keep the Law of Moses. Consequently, the members of the Assembly rose to prominence as sources of wisdom and knowledge who could interpret the written word. The letter of the law thereafter became more important than the spirit.
The oral law developed in the synagogues of Judaism for over five and a half centuries until it was compiled by Rabbi Judah the Prince in Jerusalem in the second century A.D. His compilation is called the Mishnah (“to repeat”) and consists of a commentary on the five books of Moses, explaining in great detail how Mosaic laws are to be applied in everyday life.
During the final stages of development of the Mishnah and for several centuries thereafter (until about A.D. 500) other rabbinical scholars interpreted the Mishnah just as those who contributed to the Mishnah had interpreted the Torah. In the end, they produced the Gemara (“completion”), a commentary on the Mishnah. Together, the Mishnah and Gemara form the Talmud, which is considered almost as sacred as the Torah (the Law).
A Gentile once asked one of the early Talmudic scholars to teach him all there was to know about Judaism while standing on one foot. The scholar replied: “What is offensive to you do not do to others. That is the core of Judaism. The rest is commentary.”
The Midrash, compiled in A.D. 1040, includes anecdotes, parables, and allegories which make the scriptures understandable to the common man. However, to the Jews the Midrash is not as authoritative or as binding as the Talmud or Torah.
During this period the Jews were scattered among the nations, with some few remaining in Palestine, but without national identity. In the lands of their dispersion, they were persecuted for their Jewishness by Christians. Survival was of primary concern to many during the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition. They were separatists to begin with (no inter-marrying, no contact with Gentile things), but persecution strengthened the Jews’ consolidation and unification. Forced to reinterpret their tradition in light of persecution, they separated themselves ideologically from Christianity because they received their most bitter and violent persecution under the banner of the Cross and in the so-called name of Christ.
Judaism Today“In the year one thousand nine hundred and thirty-three of the Christian Era, Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany. In his time the [Nazis] and their accomplices murdered six million Jews, among them a million and a half Jewish children. Imprisoned in ghettoes the victims fought desperately for their lives while the world stood by in silence.” (Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv, Israel.)
It is an understatement to say that the Holocaust has had the greatest impact on the Jewish people and Judaism in modern times. But it has been by no means the only persecution modern Jews have faced. Confronted with such pressures, three branches of Judaism have emerged as reinterpretations of the historical past: Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox. Another branch of Judaism more political than religious is Zionism.
Reform Judaism has prospered in recent times and together with Conservative Judaism represents most of religious Jewry. Reform and Conservative share a similar theology but differ in their interpretations of certain aspects of ritual. Conservative Judaism holds to a liberal theological position while maintaining that certain outward forms of traditional observance, particularly the dietary laws and Sabbath regulations, ought to be observed because of their historical centrality to Judaism. Reform Judaism has liberalized many of these practices and actively encourages its members to select from the many ritual options open to them.
Although most Orthodox Jews lead modern and involved lives, they tend to resist changes in religious practices. Thus they are stricter in the way they interpret traditional rabbinic law than other branches of Judaism.
Zionism is a political philosophy which holds that life in exile (outside of Israel) is intolerable. Though there are religious Zionists, the spirit of Zionism can be summed up in the words of Yigael Yadin, a prominent Jewish statesman and archaeologist: “My religion is the land.” This is the attitude of much of the population of the state of Israel today.
The main components of Judaism today are the Law (Torah), the interpretation of the Law (Talmud and Midrash), and the land of Israel, which is battling to remain a Jewish state.
One FoldAs Latter-day Saints, we see ourselves as restored Israel. Genealogically we tie ourselves to the same blood line as the Jews—we, as they, are the descendants of Abraham and Israel. But most importantly we are a restoration of the true biblical religion: we are blessed with a continuation of prophecy and prophets, the two priesthoods, Levitical and Melchizedek, temples, latter-day scriptures including the Book of Mormon, and a new—though very ancient—land of promise.
The restored gospel has as its foundation modern as well as ancient revelation. We possess a unique record of a prophetic people leaving Jerusalem before the Exile and migrating to the New World, who preserved the religion of their patriarch fathers. In the Book of Mormon, we see a group of Israelites living the law of Moses with the intent of preparing to receive Jesus Christ, the Messiah.
Several similarities still exist between the modern families of Judah and Joseph:
The day of the Jews gave way to our day: the day of the Gentiles. Again, our day will give way to the Jews.
President Kimball has taught us, “We are neither Greek nor Italian nor Mexican nor Jew. We are all … —brothers and sisters——just fellowmen, with the same overpowering responsibility. …
“The Lord said to the Nephites, ‘O ye Gentiles, have ye remembered the Jews, mine ancient covenant people? Nay; but ye have cursed them, and have hated them, and have not sought to recover them. But behold, I will return all these things upon your own heads; for I the Lord have not forgotten my people.’ (2 Ne. 29:5) …
“I repeat that scripture because it seems to me that it fits us who have, in some degree at least, forgotten them. …
“They must hear the gospel; they must accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Master, and that day, I think, cannot come until we, the witnesses of Jesus Christ, get busy and present the message to them.” (Regional Representatives’ seminar, 3 Apr. 1975; see also 3 Ne. 20:29-40.)
Our ancient progenitor Joseph is a type for us—a savior to his father’s house. Paraphrasing Joseph, we may collectively say to our brethren of the house of Israel, especially to our brethren the Jews: “I am Joseph your brother. Our Father yet lives!”.
Recorded scripture, the teachings of the living prophets, and a fascinating array of historical evidence abundantly witness that descendants of Israel have been scattered into the far reaches of Asia—that the peoples of the Orient are legitimate heirs of the promises made unto Father Abraham. And while many writers have identified contemporary European and American races with particular tribes of ancient Israel, few have considered the dispersal of Israelites into Asia.
Regarding this dispersion, the Lord declared through the prophet Amos: “I will sift the house of Israel among all nations, like as corn is sifted in a sieve, yet shall not the least grain fall upon the earth.” (Amos 9:9.) In partial fulfillment of that prophecy, it is recorded in the Bible that “in the days of Pekah king of Israel came Tiglath-pileser king of Assyria, and took Ijon, and Abel-beth-Maachah, and Janoah, and Kedesh, and Hazor, and Gilead, and Galilee, all the land of Naphtali, and carried them captive to Assyria.” (2 Kgs. 15:29.)
Those captives of Israel exiled in the north beyond the Euphrates have never returned as a whole to Palestine, as did many of their brethren, the captives of Judah. (See Ezra 2:1.)
As to the return of the remnant of captive Israel, Isaiah prophesied that they should be recovered from the four corners of the earth. (See Isa. 11:11-12.)
That the gathering of these scattered tribes has been a concern for the latter-day prophets is revealed in the prayer offered by the Prophet Joseph Smith at the dedication of the Kirtland Temple.
“And may all the scattered remnants of Israel, who have been driven to the ends of the earth, come to a knowledge of the truth, believe in the Messiah, and be redeemed from oppression, and rejoice before thee.” (D&C 109:67.)
As though in answer to the Prophet’s fervent plea, a band of intrepid Latter-day Saint missionaries penetrated the continent of Asia to share the gospel of Christ as early as 1850. But Elder Orson Hyde, one of their number who was greatly concerned with the gathering of Israel, would view with amazement, if not disbelief, the recent missionary activity in the Mormon pavilion at Expo ’70 in Japan.
From these early beginnings, when even Russia was dedicated for missionary labor, there has been a surge of Church growth in Asia. Today there are nine Asian missions. The Book of Mormon has been translated into several Asiatic languages. The numbers of baptisms in Asia have been increasing at an impressive rate, particularly since World War II.
On a broad front throughout Asia, which accounts for a third of the world’s population, there is renewed vigor to heed the call of the opening verse of the Doctrine and Covenants, which says in part:
“… Hearken ye people from afar; and ye that are upon the islands of the sea. …” (D&C 1:1.)
Concomitant with this spreading missionary effort in the Far East, there is considerable interest in ancient but recurrent Israelite influence throughout Asia. Evidence suggests that some of the discovered artifacts can be traced to the time when Israel was scattered. This look into the ancient past could be of great significance to the present-day Church in its expanding worldwide setting and certainly is of profound importance to Asian people who view their ancestors with such reverence. Possible connecting links between the Asian peoples and scattered Israelite progenitors could be one explanation of the impressive responsiveness to the message of the gospel by various peoples of Asia.
Ancient Metal Plates of the Malabar Jews. On the Malabar coast of India in Cochin a community of “White Jews” has had in its possession two brass or copper plates on which are engraved, in the ancient Tamil language, certain privileges granted to a Joseph Rabban many centuries ago by the Hindu ruler of Malabar. The plates are cherished by these Jews as their most precious historical documents—their charter, their original settlement deed—and are deposited in an iron box, known as Pandeal, in the “Paradesi” Synagogue. 1
The following is a narrative of events relating to the arrival of these Jews:
“After the second Temple was destroyed (which may God speedily rebuild) our fathers, dreading the Conqueror’s wrath, departed from Jerusalem, a numerous body of men, women, priests, and Levites came into this land. There were among them men of repute for learning and wisdom; and God gave the people favour in the sight of the king, who at that time reigned here, and he granted them a place to dwell in, called Cranganore. He allowed them a patriarchal jurisdiction within the district, with certain privileges of nobility; and the Royal grant was engraved, according to the customs of those days, on a plate of brass. This was done in the year from the creation of the world, 4250 (A.D. 490); and this plate of brass we still have in our possession. Our forefathers continued at Cranganore for about a thousand years, and the number of Heads who governed were seventy-two. Soon after our settlement, other Jews followed us from Judea; and among these came that man of great wisdom, Rabbi Samuel, a Levite of Jerusalem, with his son Rabbi Jehunda Levita. They brought with them the silver trumpets, made use of at the time of the Jubilee, which were saved when the second Temple was destroyed; and we have heard from our fathers, that there was engraved upon those trumpets the letters of the Ineffable Name. There joined us also from Spain, and other places, from time to time, certain tribes of Jews and Israelites who had heard of our prosperity. But at last, discord arising among ourselves, one of our chiefs called to his assistance an Indian King, who came upon us with a great army, destroyed our houses, palaces, and strongholds, dispossessed us of Cranganore, killed part of us, and carried part into captivity. Some of the exiles came and dwelt at Cochin, where we have remained ever since, suffering great changes from time to time. There are amongst us some of the children of Israel, who came from the country of Ashkenaz, from Egypt, from Tsoba, and other places, besides those who formerly inhabited this country.”
There are two general classes of Jews living in India, the Jerusalem or White Jews and the so-called Black Jews.
It is believed that the Black Jews arrived in India long before the others, but that their darker complexion and resemblance to the European Jews indicate that they were detached from the parent stock in Judea before the Jews in the West. The Black Jews relate many tales of other Jewish colonies in India and China. When the noted scholar Claudius Buchanan visited the Malabar coast just after the turn of the nineteenth century, he was provided with a written list of sixty-five such colonies.
“I conversed with those who had lately visited many of these stations, and were about to return again. The Jews had a never-ceasing communication with each other in the East. Their families indeed were generally stationary, being subject to despotic princes; but the men move much about in a commercial capacity; and the same individual will pass through many extensive countries. So that when a thing interesting to the nation of the Jews takes place, the rumour will pass rapidly throughout all Asia.”
Non-Chinese in China. Western people tend to regard Orientals as all of one race, thinking that Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Thais, and Indonesians are somehow indistinguishable from one another. There is no such thing as an Asian race. The Asian continent is a giant marketplace of many different races.
The Chinese certainly are not all of the same ethnic stock, and it would be as inexact to speak of “the Chinese race” as it would be to speak of the “European race.” The Irishman would likely find as much in common with the Bulgarian in speech and manners as the native of Shansi with the Cantonese.
Professor Lo Hsiang-Lin’s study of Chinese clan genealogies shows numerous historical migrations among clans within China, as well as widespread intermarriage of Chinese with other ethnic groups—including racial strains from the far reaches of Southwest Asia. Among these various infusions there have been many groups of Semitic and Caucasian peoples. As Rodney Gilbert has observed: “In the time of Confucius there were blond Aryan tribesmen occupying tracts in what is now North-west China, and light eyes and hair in very frequent throwbacks testify that, while the majority of those blonds migrated, a certain number were absorbed. Colonies of Indians, Arabs, Jews and Russians have been absorbed. … Within the bounds of China proper there are scores of fragments of non-Chinese peoples who still maintain their racial identity and their own non-Chinese languages but who are slowly but surely being absorbed and who would, with improved communications, be as Chinese as any others in two or three generations, retaining few traditions of an alien origin.”
These historical differences illustrated in “foreign” groups are still clearly distinguishable in various areas of China. Rene Grousset has pointed out that oasis dwellers in the Tarim Basin are agriculturalists who still differ from the Altaic nomads who surround them: “Their physical appearance, even today, is not Mongolian, but very similar to the Iranian variety of Caucasian.”
Jewish Merchants and Asian Caravan Routes. G. F. Hudson has shown that communication, travel, and substantial cultural and economic intercourse existed between China and the Mediterranean world from earliest Roman times. During Han dynasty times (roughly two centuries before and after Christ) the silk trade between the East and the West reached its height, which brought foreign merchants and traders as well as soldiers and hostages to mingle with the sons of Han. Men risked their lives by land and sea to carry the precious materials to Rome, materials that were, at that time, to be procured only in China.
There is evidence that Israelite colonies had already settled in Central Asia as much as 200 years before the writing of Isaiah 49:12 [Isa. 49:12], which tells of the presence of Israelites in China (“the land of Sinim”). China was interested in keeping open the roads to the western world at least a thousand years before the Christian era. The antiquity of the camel caravan routes is shown by the fact that the camel, a native of Central Asia, was known in ancient Babylonia by 2000 B.C.
When Israelite colonies reached the trade cities of the Iranic Medes in 720 B.C., a direct road to China had long been marked out for them by the line of Iranic oasis trade colonies reaching clear across Central Asia. These Israelites did not have the task of pioneering through uncharted deserts battling with unknown savages. In every oasis, by means of Iranic speech, they were in contact with nomads who were anxious to trade with them.
Two Jewish fragments already illustrate the significance of Chinese Turkestan for Judaism. Sir Aurel Stein found at a place on the northern caravan route a Persian business letter, written in square Hebrew characters. It has been dated A.D. 708. The other manuscript came from the southern caravan route, some fifteen years earlier, from the ancient city of Tunhuang in eastern Turkestan. In a buried cloister library, Professor Paul Pelliot, the French scholar, found a sheet of paper with antique Hebrew writing. Philippe Berger and Moise Schwab, who published it, date it also in the eighth century. It is, then, the oldest Hebrew manuscript thus far known. It is a simple devotional sheet, composed of passages from the Psalms and prophets. But it is written on paper, which at that date was made only in China.
The Kaifeng Jews. Man’s knowledge of the travels and settlement of “the dispersed of Judah” in China is still very inadequate. Western interest in this subject began in 1605, when a Kaifeng Jew named Ngai T’ien visited the Jesuit missionary and scholar, Matteo Ricci, in Peking. From then on to the closing years of the nineteenth century, foreigners have taken a great interest in these Jewish remnants. Father Ricci’s account of the initial discovery of Israelites in East Asia was a dramatic revelation to the European world. It led to a flurry of research consisting at first of Catholic missionaries, later of Protestants, and finally of Jews.
The conditions surrounding this initial discovery of the Kaifeng Jewish community and some of its possible implications were reported by Ricci:
“We have likewise discovered, as will be explained below, Jews who are living according to the ancient law of Moses. But they number only a few families and as far as we know, they have no synagogues elsewhere except in Kai-feng Fu, the capital of Honan province, and in Hangchow fu, the capital of Chekiang province. In it (in the Kaifeng synagogue; tr.) the Pentateuch of Moses is without vowel signs, on sheepskin parchment rolled up according to the old fashion. They do not have other books from the Old Testament and also did not know which ones they did not possess. They have preserved the ceremony of circumcision and, moreover, they abstain from eating pork and any kind of meat with sinews according to their ancient ritual.
“It was only a few years ago that we learned for certain that there exist also Christians, especially in the northern provinces, who are called worshippers of the cross. Sixty years ago they flourished to such an extent in regard to the number of their families and their literary and military abilities that the Chinese became suspicious of them; they were perhaps instigated by the Mohammedans who everywhere are our enemies. The Chinese, therefore, wanted to catch them and thus they all went into hiding, some of them as Turks (Mohammedans; tr.) or Jews, but most of them became gentiles (Chinese Confucianists, Buddhists, or Taoists; tr.). Their churches were changed into temples of idols and their descendants, although many preserved the custom of making the sign of the cross over their food and drink, remained so afraid that they did not want to confess to be the progeny of the followers of the cross; and there is nobody, either among them or others, who knows of any occasion to make these crosses. But this symbol of theirs clearly demonstrates that they are the offspring of alien people in China. …”
A book written by Ricci came into the hands of a Jew who came from the province of Honan and whose surname was Ai. Having read this book of foreigners staying in China who worshipped only the “King of Heaven,” he sought out the home of the priests, convinced that they would be followers of the Mosaic law. Through this visit, it was learned that there were ten or twelve Jewish families living in Kaifeng and that there was a beautiful synagogue there, containing courtyards, pavilions, and a central enclosure on the north side where washings and ablutions were performed. On the south side was a slaughterhouse, where animals were killed by the synagogue authorities in the prescribed way. The Kaifeng Jews kept with veneration the Pentateuch of Moses, written on sheepskin parchment, rolled in five scrolls. Other Jews lived in Hangchow and other parts, the families dating back at least 600 years in that region.
This Chinese of Jewish descent told many stories of the Old Testament, using interesting pronunciations. For instance, Jerusalem he called Heirusoloim, and the Messiah, who he said was still to come, he called Mosicia. He said that many in Kaifeng knew Hebrew, although he himself did not.
Imprint of Israelites in Japan. The Japanese archipelago, composed of four main islands and hundreds of smaller ones stretching over more than 1,500 miles along the eastern shore of the Asiatic continent, is far removed from the homeland of ancient Israel. Yet the accessibility of these islands by sea would permit settlers to come from widely separated geographic regions. Many came from the Asian continent and others from the coastal regions of Southeast Asia and from Polynesia. 12 The earliest known settlers included the enigmatic Ainu, a Caucasian people today surviving only in small numbers in the northern areas of the country; and as in China and Korea, 13 ruddy-skinned, long-nosed Semitic and Aryan types have also appeared. 14 There can be no question but that among the many groups of wayfaring immigrants who have reached the Japanese islands over the distant past, remnants of ancient Israel have been included among their number.
It was almost noon when I arrived in Nablus (the ancient biblical town of Shechem), nestled between Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim, the mountains of cursings and blessings.(See Deut. 11:29.) Nablus is today the center of Samaritan worship, and I had been invited to attend their synagogue.
Impatiently I drove through the winding streets, parked the car, and hurried up the narrow stairs. The high priest motioned me in to the small worship room.
He then took his place at the head of the small congregation; they formed themselves in orderly rows and bowed to their high priest. I felt somewhat out of place as the only woman there.
The congregation knelt on the straw-matted floor, bowing again, and the high priest began to chant scripture from the large silver-encased scrolls of the Torah, the congregation chanting in turn. The high priest had told me they are the oldest scrolls of the Torah in existence, dated to approximately 1100 A.D. by modern scholars. The five books of Moses contained in those scrolls are the entire scriptural basis of the Samaritan belief.
How little the world has studied about this people, the Samaritans! I had found few references, and existing accounts of their origin were sketchy. Both Flavius Josephus in the Antiquities of the Jews (11:7, 2; c:8) and references in the Bible referred to them as descendants of the Cuthaeans, the people of Cuthah in Babylonia. They were sent into Samaria by Assyrian conquerors when Israel fell to the Assyrians in 721 B.C. (See 2 Kgs. 17:24.) Moving conquered people from one area of a kingdom to another was a practice to prevent insurrection.
The Samaritans, on the other hand, claimed to be Israelites. Some scholars agree, as it is doubtful that the Assyrians would have removed the entire Israelite populace from the country. They would probably have removed only the most able Israelites, since the educated and the rich would be most likely to start an uprising. The Cuthaeans, who were also forced to flee to Samaria, intermarried with the remaining Israelites and eventually took on their religion to please “the God of the land.”
The high priest, however, insisted the Samaritan priests had been of the pure line of Aaron until 1623, when the last descendant died. Since that time, he said, high priests have been of the lineage of Aaron’s uncle, Uzziel (referred to in Ex. 6:17).
If these people were indeed Israelites and had practiced their religion, why the stigma attached to them? But I knew that the Israelites were a covenant people who frowned upon intermarriage with gentile races, which would include the Cuthaean-Israelite blood. This breaking of the law, coupled with the fact that the Samaritans were, in part, a remnant of some of the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom, which had earlier separated themselves from the kingdom of Judah, could explain the dislike most Jews displayed for the Samaritans.
The Samaritans weren’t actually known as such until Cyrus of Persia ordered the Jews to return to Israel from exile (about 458 B.C.) and build a temple in Jerusalem.
The Samaritans offered to help build the second temple, but were rebuffed by the Jews as unfit to do so. (See Ezra 4:1-3.) The people of Samaria were thus forced into a group by themselves.
The schism between the two factions was completed when the Samaritans built their own temple on Mount Gerizim (332 B.C.), proclaiming it as God’s holy place. This was considered an act of blasphemy by the Jews.
The building of the temple on Mount Gerizim was probably the result of at least two forces. First, the Jews’ dislike of the Samaritans made it difficult for the Samaritans to worship in Jerusalem. Second, Samaria had been made a separate governorship in 445 B.C. under Bagoas, and this undoubtedly made it difficult for them to travel outside the area to worship. Thus, with the consent of Alexander the Great, they built their own temple for local worship. The idea of a synagogue for general worship hadn’t as yet been introduced among the Samaritans.
Hatred between the Jews and the Samaritans was intensified when John Hyrcanus destroyed the Samaritan temple during a move to expand the Jewish Hasmonean state in 128 B.C. But the Samaritans joined the Jews in a revolt against Rome in 68 A.D.; they stayed with the Jews until they suffered heavy losses; they then turned to support the Romans. Their last active role in history was their part in a revolt against Justinian in 529 A.D., which failed.
The Samaritans suffered their own schism during the latter half of the second century B.C. when Dositheus started an anti-priestly movement, denying the sanctity of Mount Gerizim and attempting to eliminate sacrifice.
The movement had its greatest supporter in the great high priest Baba Rabba of the fourth century A.D. He expanded the Dosithean principles, writing a liturgy for laymen and building a synagogue on Mount Gerizim to replace the destroyed temple. It was not until the 14th century that the schism ended; it finally ended simply because the antagonistic groups had been so greatly reduced in number. The movement left its mark, however; worship was considered legitimate elsewhere than in the synagogue on Mount Gerizim, and prayer replaced most sacrificial rites. The Samaritans continued to observe the sacrifice of lambs at Passover.
The service ended, and the men broke up into groups, talking together. Even though the Samaritans are now free to worship as they choose under Israel’s government, they still carry the outward signs of their former oppressions.
They wore the red fez of the Turkish Moslem, and the ceremony was strikingly Arabic Moslem: the orderly rows, the bowing, and the kneeling on the floor. (Jewish ceremonies were often more disorderly, each worshiper chanting his own rhythm, while sitting on benches positioned around a pulpit.) The Samaritan service was also held on Sunday rather than on Saturday, the Jewish Shabbat—perhaps a mark of Christian inroads.
There was also no evidence of the Jewish practice of wearing the prayer shawls and phylacteries. (See Num. 15:37-39, Deut. 6:6-8.) “These are symbolisms not to be taken literally,” the high priest told me. “But no matter what the outward signs, the central significance of the Torah hasn’t changed throughout the centuries.”
I left the synagogue and drove up Mount Gerizim. It was windy on top, and the sign on the fence opposite me, clanking against its bonds, read “Rock of Isaac’s Sacrifice.” This was another chasm that separated the Samaritans from the Jews. The Jews claimed Isaac had been taken up to be offered by Abraham on Mount Zion (Moriah) in Jerusalem, former site of the Jewish temple, where the Dome of the Rock now stands. (See Gen. 22:2.)
Though the Bible states that Moriah is the mountain where the sacrifice of Isaac was to take place, substantiating the Jewish claim, the Septuagint (an ancient Greek translation) does not support it, merely identifying the place as “the high country.” (The Syriac translation reads “the land of the Amorites.”) Thus, the exact location is inconclusive, allowing both Jew and Samaritan to feel he is right.
I walked to the grassy edge of Mount Gerizim. There are now basically only five clans left, some 400 Samaritans whose greatest problem today is propagating themselves.
As I looked out over Nablus, the wind had died down. Below lay the remnant of this people, and in the stillness around me the time might have been 400 B.C.
In the year 537 B.C., a small remnant of the Kingdom of Judah wended its way southward through the hill country leading up to Jerusalem. Though numbering fewer than 50,000, these Jews were filled with high anticipation as they approached the Holy City at the end of their 900-mile journey out of Babylon, the land of their captivity. Just a year before, the Persian king Cyrus had decreed the return of the exiles of Judah and the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. The majority of the captives elected to remain in Babylon; but this party, representing the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, Simeon, and Levi, had set out for their homeland as soon as preparations could be made.
What they found must surely have called forth a flood of tears: the Holy City in ruins, its walls pulled down, the temple site a waste of rubble since Nebuchadnezzar’s armies “overthrew the city to the very foundations” a generation before. (Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, bk. 10, 8:5.)
Under the wary eyes of hostile and interfering neighbors, some of the returning people remained in Jerusalem and others settled into other cities they had formerly possessed.
The following year they set about to rebuild the temple, which was completed in 515 B.C. When they first began, Samaria offered to help. But the Samaritans were of mixed ancestry (partly of Israel and partly of other lineage, notably Cuthaean), and certain pagan rites had crept into their religion. The Jews rejected their offer, and the Samaritans thereafter built their own sanctuary on Mt. Gerizim near Shechem.
Despite the generosity of the Persian emperor, the rebuilt temple in Jerusalem fell far short of the glory of the former structure that Solomon had erected—so much so, in fact, that at the dedication the “elder part of the families,” who remembered the former temple, “considered with themselves how much their happy state was sunk below what it had been of old, as well as their temple. Hereupon they were disconsolate, and not able to contain their grief … [and] the wailing of the old men, and of the priests, on account of the deficiency of this temple … overcame the sounds of the trumpets and the rejoicing of the people.” (Josephus, Antiquities, bk. 11, 4:2; see also Ezra 3:12-13.)
Thus began a new chapter in the history of Judah, now a much chastened people. From the time of their bondage with their fellow Israelites in Egypt a thousand years before, one sin had been paramount in Israel’s history: idolatry. They had intermarried with the people of Canaan and joined them in the worship of Baal and other false gods; for centuries they denied, dishonored, persecuted, rebelled against, and even killed the prophets. But the Babylonian captivity shocked Judah into the realization that God would not tolerate idolatry, that they must become a righteous people serving the true God.
They received a further reminder of this fact when the famous priest and scribe Ezra led a second migration from Babylon to Jerusalem fifty-seven years after the temple was completed. To his dismay, Ezra found that the people had again begun to intermarry with the Canaanites and others, once again “doing according to their abominations.” (Ezra 8:1.)
Ezra recorded: “And when I heard this thing, I rent my garment and my mantle, and plucked off the hair of my head and of my beard, and sat down astonied”—amazed that backsliding could possibly have occurred during the “little space grace hath been shewed from the Lord our God, to leave us a remnant to escape, … and give us a little reviving in our bondage.” (Ezra 9:3, 8.)
At that point, a “very great congregation of men and women and children” gathered around him and likewise “wept very sore” (Ezra 10:1), and afterward made a covenant to put away the wives they had married of the people of the land, lest the temptation of idolatry come upon them again.
Ezra then brought out the book containing the Law of Moses and read it before the congregation. When they had understood the Law, they “assembled with fasting, and with sackclothes, and earth upon them” (Neh. 9:1) and made a covenant to obey the Lord and again organized themselves under the priestly order (see Neh. 8-12).
In these acts of repentance, Judah rejected the worship of graven images and false gods and for a time became very zealous for God and his word.
Worship of the LawIn retrospect, the reading of the Law before the congregation by Ezra, the “ready scribe in the law of Moses” (Ezra 7:6), was a very important event in Jewish history. This event and the attitudes that grew out of it are considered the beginning of a new and stronger affinity for the Law of Moses and the establishment of a strong scribal tradition among the Jews. Although there is little information about this period, from either secular or scriptural sources, historians believe that the scribal tradition, in turn, brought to the Holy Land a synagogue form of worship that had its roots in the Babylonian captivity.
It appears that before the captivity, the people of Judah had been careless in keeping track of their holy writings. At times the scriptures were even lost from public knowledge, as in the days preceding King Josiah. (See 2 Kgs. 22-24.) But in the years of the captivity, the Jews engaged in a kind of “operation salvage” as their scribes began to gather, preserve, and proliferate the works of the dead prophets. The Torah (the first five books of the Bible, containing the Law of Moses) was felt to be the key to reestablishing Israel’s special relationship with the Lord; and in bringing about a reformation in the hearts of the people of Israel, Ezra and other leaders resolved that never again would the people be ignorant of the Law.
The scribes were originally educated men who made their livelihood as copyists of the scriptures. They studied the holy writings diligently—not only as a way to detect copyists’ errors, but also to understand the meaning of the scriptures. Thus, in the Holy Land the role of the scribes expanded. They became teachers of the Law, explaining its meaning and offering advice on how the details of the Law could be faithfully carried out. The titles these men took upon themselves reflected their growing prominence: lawyers, doctors, elders, and rabbis.
One important reason for the expanded role of the scribes was the shift of the language from Hebrew to Aramaic (the language of Babylon). As a result of the captivity, the Jews now spoke Aramaic, which, though a sister tongue, Aramaic was sufficiently different that it made the Hebrew of the scriptures hard to understand. Thus, Aramaic became the everyday language of the people, and Hebrew became the language of the synagogue. The scriptures came to belong to the synagogue and the scholars, not the home; and the people, who for the most part could not read the scriptures, increasingly relied upon the scholars for information and understanding.
Out of these circumstances grew the “oral tradition.” Ezra and many early scribes who followed him acknowledged certain interpretations of the Law that had come down in oral form. After Ezra’s day there arose a group of men called the Jarmain, or mishnical doctors, who made it their business to study the oral traditions. To these they added their own interpretations, and those who succeeded them in turn added more. By the time of the Lord, the major portion of the Jews had come to revere the oral tradition as highly as the written Law itself.
Over the centuries spanning the intertestamental period, much Jewish devotion was transferred from God to the Law of Moses itself. Obedience to the Law—and then to men’s interpretation of the Law became all-important, for obedience was the method by which one could bind God. Thus, the Law and its interpretations became the savior of the people.
In fact, as the importance of the Law increased, Judah’s perception of it began to change. In some scholarly writings the Law became personified, so that God could actually take counsel with it. Thus, when God said, “Let us make man …” in Genesis 1 [Gen. 1], the doctors maintained that he was in fact talking with the Law. At times the Law was seen as the daughter of God which pleaded for Israel before Jehovah’s throne—that is, it was seen to be a mediator between man and God. There were even those who said that the Torah itself, in its true primordial essence, was God. (See Encyclopedia Judaica, ed. Cecil Roth, 16 vols., Jerusalem: Cater Publishing House, Jerusalem Ltd., 1972, 5:1239-41.)
Thus, the transferal of devotion from God to the Law and its interpretations became a new kind of idolatry. Through this process, God was reduced to an impersonal abstraction and man became the center of the universe, with power to save himself through conformity to the Law. Consequently, it would be inaccurate to say that Judah wholly gave up idolatry in the Babylonian captivity. What she did abandon was image worship. But the heart and soul of Judah continued, after one brief lapse, to remain as it always was—unclear about the true nature of God, his purposes, plans, and relationship with man.
The Hellenization of JudeaTo make matters worse, in the closing years of the fourth century B.C., a new power forced itself to the forefront of world history. In 334 B.C., Alexander the Great began a war of conquest against the Persian empire that swept as far as the banks of the Indus River. Though in a few short years Alexander would be dead, the Hellenic (Greek) influence was to be felt for centuries.
With Alexander’s conquest of the little Judean state, the Jewish world pivoted westward toward the influences of the civilizations of Europe. Greek became the new language of the empire, and Hellenic culture became an almost irresistible influence in Greece’s conquered territories. Many Jews, especially in Egypt and elsewhere, but also in Palestine, accepted the Greek culture as their own. Thus, new pagan influences and challenges faced the Jewish people on a greater level than ever before.
The influence of Greek philosophy and materialism soon penetrated the upper strata of Jewish society. Even the prestigious Zadok family, which had dominated the high priest’s office, and thus controlled both temple worship and the more political Council of the Elders since the days of King David, succumbed to this pressure and abandoned part of the simple cloak of the Torah for the more elaborate garb of the Gentiles. A number of the Hellenized Jewish elite entered the very profitable ranks of Greek tax collectors. These would later be taken over by the Romans and become the Publicanii or Publicans of the New Testament. Their obvious concessions to the way of the pagan caused many of the more pious to lump them with sinners in general—an association that would endure to the time of Christ.
Wars swept over the entire East after the death of Alexander as his generals fought to gain control of his empire. In 301 B.C., Judea fell to the Ptolemies of Egypt, who governed it for a hundred years. Palestine was of major strategic importance for Egypt, serving as a buffer zone in the defense of Egypt—and as an advance base for Egyptian offensive forays. In addition, it had great economic value because of the trade routes which crossed it. Nevertheless, the rulership by the Ptolemies was one of relative stability for Judea (as long as taxes were paid), and during this period the population of Judea greatly increased.
The Seleucids, the other great Macedonian dynasty, who had firmly established themselves in Syria, were far more than indifferent to having the Ptolemies rule a country so close to their heartland. Thus, Judea remained a bone of contention between the two rival factions until 200 B.C., when the Seleucids were able to capture and hold it.
When the Seleucid, Antiochus IV, came to power in 175 B.C., the semi-tranquility of the Jews came to an abrupt end. Not only did Antiochus build a gymnasium in Jerusalem to introduce Greek philosophy, drama, and other customs, he also made an immediate attempt to destroy the religion of the Jews and impose the worship of Greek deities upon them. In 169 B.C. the temple was plundered by his order.
Two years later, in 167 B.C., Antiochus sent his troops into the Holy City on the sabbath day. Thousands of Jews were killed. Idols were set up around Jersualem and in the temple, and the people were forced to worship them. Temple worship was suspended, and sabbath observance, celebrations, and circumcision were forbidden. Finally, to the horror of the Jews, an altar to Zeus was erected in the temple courtyard, and a pig was sacrificed thereon.
These events touched off the Maccabean revolt. Instead of quietly submitting to the outrage committed against them, the people of Judea, led by the Hasmonean family, broke out in a rebellion that won them a hundred-year period of self-rule until the Roman conquest of 63 B.C.
Pharisees and SadduceesIt was at this point in history that two very important groups came to the fore: the Pharisees and the Sadducees.
The party from which the Pharisees evolved was most likely the Hasidim, a sect that promoted the observance of rituals and the study of the Torah during the time of Ezra. Many of the early Hasidim took a vow to separate themselves from the impurities of those living around them (both heathens and less zealous Jews) and to follow a more strict interpretation of the Law. Consequently, theirs was the sect most active in maintaining and enlarging the oral law in addition to the Torah as the source of their religion. In adapting the old codes to new conditions, they adopted a more figurative interpretation of the Law. They believed in a combination of free will and predestination, in angels, in spirits, in the resurrection of the dead, and in a judgment in the life to come. Their basic concern was for a person’s daily conduct, which they considered more important than temple rites. (See Encylopedia Judaica, 13:363.)
The meaning of the word Pharisee (a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew Perushim) is uncertain but probably comes from the Hebrew stem parash, meaning “to be separated.” The Hasidim, who were deeply dissatisfied with the Hellenizing tendencies of the Judean leadership under the Seleucids, were already “separatists” at the time of the Maccabean revolt. But the term Pharisees was first applied to the sect under the rule of John Hyrcanus (ca. 110 B.C.) when they were expelled from the Sanhedrin. However, by the time of the Savior, the beliefs, practices, and attitudes of the Pharisees came to represent those of the vast majority of the people of Judea, who wanted to hold to what they thought were orthodox views at a time of cultural change.
While the Pharisees were primarily from the common people, the Sadducees were from the upper classes: priests, merchants, and aristocrats. The name of the sect, Zedukim in Hebrew, is most probably derived from Zadok, the high priest in the days of King David. Hence the name Sadducees refers to those who were sympathetic with the Zadokites. (See Encyclopedia Judaica, 14:622.)
The Zadokite family controlled the temple hierarchy down to the time of the Maccabean revolt. Under the Seleucids, the Zadokites were notorious Hellenizers. Therefore, they were cast aside by the Hasmonean leaders, who were determined to restore purity to Jewish culture and religious practice.
The Sadducees also thought they were holding to orthodox views. But unlike the Pharisees, the Sadducees rejected the oral law as binding except for that portion which was based strictly on the Torah. For them, the purpose of keeping the Law was for divine guidance in mortality. God’s law was to be strictly obeyed, but it was not interpreted—and enlarged—in such minute detail for them as it was for the Pharisees. No symbolic or allegorical interpretation, a favorite of the Pharisees, was allowed. Therefore, they also rejected what they felt were supernatural beliefs of the Pharisees, including the existence of angels, spirits, and the afterlife and, therefore, the resurrection. Their theology tended to bring God down to man. The worship they offered God was not unlike the homage paid to a human ruler. They also held in high esteem the sacrificial rituals of the temple.
It was in the power struggle between these two sects that the widespread adoption of formal synagogue worship can be traced. The Pharisees sought to undermine the religious authority of the Sadducees, which was based on their exclusive priestly domination of the temple. To accomplish this, the Pharisees advocated taking certain ceremonies, previously associated exclusively with the temple, and practicing them in the home. In addition, formal institutions of worship, the synagogues, were established as places for learning the Pharisaic version of doctrine. It was in this way that learned men of nonpriestly descent began to play a role in national religious affairs.
It was through the synagogue that the Pharisees strove to keep the people separate from the heathen and to bring them to the Torah and God. There they were taught exactly what they must do. In the home, on the street, in the shop and market, every movement of the pious was regulated. (See Elias Beckerman, From Ezra to the Last of the Maccabees, Chicago: Schocken Books Inc., 1962 pp. 160-66.) The reasoning was simple: If one is saved by obedience to the Law, then one must obey the Law perfectly in order to be perfect before God. In order to be obeyed perfectly, the Law must be defined in great detail so that there are no ambiguities. Hence the close regulation of so many details of everyday life.
By the time of the Lord, a feeling of unity between the Pharisees and the people had, for the most part, been achieved. Though they had no constitutional power, they possessed such an influence that the people supported them even against the king or the high priest. In this way, their beliefs had political force. All acts of worship, including temple sacrifices, were carried out according to their interpretation of the ordinances. Even the Sadducees, whenever they obtained office, were obliged to keep the Pharisaic codes, no matter how irksome, or else find themselves in disfavor with the people. (See Josephus, Antiquities, bk. 11, 10:6.)
In fact, all religious law was administered by a court of seventy elders presided over by a high priest and called the Sanhedrin. The majority of this court had traditionally been Pharisees. The high priest, however, being a descendent of Zadok, was a Sadducee. After the Roman conquest of Judea, the position of high priest became a political appointment. As such, the high priest had his own private court to administer civil law.
Judea under the RomansRelations with Rome date to 160 B.C., when the Roman Senate, responding to a delegation sent by the Maccabees, acknowledged that the kingdom of Judah should be independent of Syrian domination. However, it was not until after Pompey’s invasion in 63 B.C. that Rome took over administration of Judea. Hyrcanus II, of the Jewish Hasmonean family, was made high priest. A few years later, Antipater was appointed procurator of Judea. An Idumean by descent, Antipater was a Jew by religion and a Roman by citizenship.
The rule of Hyrcanus II under the grace of Rome was short-lived. Antipater was soon successful in bringing about the deposition of Hyrcanus and his house. His own son, Herod, called “the Great,” was appointed by Rome as king.
Herod was hated for many reasons, not the least of which was that he was not a Jew. As the people hated him, he in turn hated them. However, fear of an appeal to Rome kept him from being even more brutal than he was. Although his family had been converts to Judaism, he did what he could to disrupt certain aspects of the religion of the Jews. He was a great supporter of Hellenistic culture and reinstated it in Judea. In conjunction with this Hellenization, he undertook great building programs, all of which the people paid for through heavy taxes. Thus the people of Judea saw their money erect fortresses, gymnasiums, and pagan temples. To placate them, as well as to give more power and prestige to the Sadducees, who were generally his supporters, he began an elaborate expansion program on the temple mount. This building activity was still in progress in Christ’s day.
When Herod died, the Romans divided the kingdom between his three living sons. Philip ruled north and east of Galilee, Herod Antipas ruled Galilee and Perea, and Archelaus ruled Judea, Samaria, and Idumea. Because of his extreme and suppressive measures, the people of Judea were successful in having Archelaus removed in A.D. 6. This area was then given to Herod Antipas to rule. In A.D. 26, Pontius Pilate was appointed Prefect of Judea with headquarters at Caesarea.
The Herodians and the ZealotsOne group of Judeans favored the advent of Herod Antipas and urged the people to support his sovereignty. For this reason they were called “Herodians.” They saw his rise to power as fulfillment of certain messianic ideas then current. They preached these ideas and opposed any whom they felt might unbalance the status quo. It was this political party that joined forces with the Pharisees to oppose the Lord.
In opposition to the Herodians stood the Zealots. This party was formed in Galilee in response to heavy Roman taxation. These rebels took as a prototype Phinehas, the grandson of Aaron, who was commended for his zeal in the service of the Lord. (See Num. 25:7-13.) Therefore, the Zealots, though politically motivated, were grounded in theology—the supremacy of God and the Torah over the institutions of man. They had some of the spirit of the Maccabees in their opposition to Hellenization and their desire to keep Judea free, and they were ready to resort to violence to defend their beliefs. Their initial rebellion was successfully suppressed by the Romans, after which the survivors took to the deserts where they continued to put pressure on the Romans through guerrilla tactics during the time of the Lord.
ConclusionScribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, Romans, Herodians, Publicans, priests, Zealots—all these factions, major and minor, were in place by the end of the intertestamental period. Though services had been interrupted, the temple rites had continued during most of that time. Priests had made the proper sacrifices on the great altar, and once a year a priest had offered incense upon the altar in the Holy Place. All had gone like clockwork—until one day a high priest tarried in the Holy Place much longer than expected. The people began to marvel and conjecture. And well they should have, for once again the veil had been lifted and heaven’s word was proclaimed. The aged Zacharias stood in the presence of an angel, who said: “Thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son. … [He] shall make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:13, 17.)
This long-desired child was to be a messenger who would go forth in the spirit and power of Elias to declare that the kingdom of God was at hand. Once more Judah would be extended the covenant and the promise. Once more the keys and power were to be proffered to her. Once more she could become the nation of Jehovah. He who came to prepare the way for the Messiah was John, Johanan—“Gift of God.”
S. Kent Brown, “Biblical Egypt: Land of Refuge, Land of Bondage,” Ensign, Sept. 1980, pg 45
One of the most intriguing words in the scriptures—as a place, as a reference, as a symbol—is Egypt, the land of so many of our Father’s children. Biblical Egypt served both as a refuge and as a threat to the Lord’s people in Old Testament and New Testament times. From Abraham to Jesus, the prophets, patriarchs, and people had a continuous connection with the place called Egypt, and on more than one occasion they dwelt there. One of the greatest prophets of the Old Testament, Moses, was called up out of Egypt. And Joseph, from whom so many of us have descended, performed his greatest service to God and His people in that land.
The emphasis in the Bible consistently falls not on Egyptians as persons but on Egypt as a place. Only rarely are individuals native to Egypt mentioned by name (see, for example, Gen. 41:50; 2 Kgs. 23:29; Jer. 44:30). Thus, when in later Christian scripture Egypt is used as a symbol of spiritual bondage, we note that the writers use the place as a symbol understood by the Jews and not a charge against the people. In the book of Revelation, for instance, Egypt is equated with Sodom, and both are used as names or symbols for a wicked Jerusalem of the latter days (Rev. 11:8). But this use of Egypt only partially reflects the attitudes of the ancient Israelites toward that place. While it was often a place of testing or bondage, it was also a frequent haven from their troubles.
A Refuge from FamineFor Abraham and Sarah, Egypt constituted a place of refuge from the famine raging at the time of their arrival in Canaan (see Gen. 12:10). Interestingly, while Abraham and Sarah enjoyed respite from Canaan’s drought, their visit to Egypt provided Sarah with one of her most difficult trials.
Most are familiar with the story of Sarah posing as Abraham’s sister (see Gen. 12:11-15). Even though Abraham later insisted that Sarah was his sister through his father, but not his mother (see Gen. 20:12), many students have felt confused with this explanation. It was not until the discovery of ancient Hurrian legal texts at the site of Nuzi, a city east of Ashur, the capital of ancient Assyria, that we obtained a clearer background for this incident.
The Hurrians were people who flourished about the time of Abraham, and later. Their kingdom included the land of Haran in which Abraham and Sarah lived for a number of years before moving to Canaan (see Gen. 11:31; Gen. 12:5). Interestingly, only in stories dealing with Sarah and Rebecca do we find the claim made that the wife was also a sister to her husband (see Gen. 12:10-20; Gen. 20:2-6; Gen. 26:1-11). Rebecca, like Sarah, spent her youth growing up in Haran, no doubt in contact with Hurrians.
The contact is important when we learn that under Hurrian law women were frequently adopted as sisters by their husbands either before or during the marriage ceremony. Such a dual status, both wife and sister, had important consequences for a woman. It guaranteed to her special legal and social protections and opportunities which were simply not available to women in any other culture of the Near East. Because Sarah had lived within the Hurrian culture for a number of years, it is not unlikely that she enjoyed this status in her marriage, a status common among Hurrians. Therefore, Abraham’s claim that Sarah was his sister upon their entry into the land of Egypt is not far-fetched in the least. Further, it is possible that Terah, Abraham’s father, had adopted Sarah before her marriage to Abraham and that this is the meaning of the passage in Genesis 20:12 [Gen. 20:12]. This particular practice, on the part of a prospective father-in-law, is documented from the Nuzi tablets. (See E. A. Speiser, “The Wife-Sister Motif in the Patriarchal Narratives,” in Biblical and Other Studies, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1963, pp. 15-28.)
In Genesis Abraham is said to have insisted that Sarah was his sister because he feared for his life. The incident is clarified in the book of Abraham where we learn it was revealed to Abraham that Sarah would maintain that she was his sister (see Abr. 2:21-25).
This placed the burden on Sarah. Would she risk her own rights as wife in order to preserve the life of her husband as the Lord had asked? Indeed, Sarah’s visit to Egypt became a period of intense trial for her. Even though the Lord protected her from the pharaoh’s intent to make her his wife—and protected her virtue—the pharaoh was nevertheless allowed to take her into his household (Gen. 12:15-20). We see, then, that Egypt represented at the same time a haven from the famine and a place of testing for Sarah.
The Testing of JosephFor Joseph, also, Egypt served two opposing functions. On the one hand, it formed a true proving ground for him, since it was here that he was most severely tested. On the other, Egypt gave him refuge from his brothers’ jealousies, which had plagued him throughout his youth. Perhaps here Joseph would be more likely to succeed or fail on his own merits rather than succumbing to the contrary winds of his father’s favoritism and his brothers’ hatred and repression.
We must bear in mind that Egypt was a transformer of cultures. Almost every culture that came into contact with Egypt sooner or later adopted Egyptian qualities in the most fundamental ways. It is stirring, therefore, to find an exception in Abraham and Sarah, who departed Egypt with their loyalty to their God intact. But they were adults already refined by experience. To say that the young Joseph resisted the enticements of the Egyptian culture in the same way his grandparents had is to pay him great tribute. He had been betrayed and sold by his brothers. He was alone in a strange land. Yet the teenage Joseph chose to remain true to the teachings of his parents and his God.
The Deliverance of the Children of IsraelFor the rest of the family of Jacob, Egypt became a place of refuge from another severe famine. By the end of the book of Genesis, Egypt is portrayed as a land of plenty while Canaan, tortured by drought, was hostile to human survival. But the refuge turned to bondage when the descendants of Jacob, in the book of Exodus, came to be held captive by Egypt’s pharaoh. Suddenly the picture changed. Egypt now represented loathsome servitude for the Hebrews, while Canaan was characterized as a “land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex. 3:8).
In a sense, the land of Egypt represented not only a place of testing for Israel but a place where they saw Jehovah in a contest with the false gods of pharaoh. Thus, the Exodus, one of the greatest dramas of human deliverance ever told, is not merely a story of one people escaping the power of another, but is a chronicle of a struggle for supremacy between the idolatrous gods of Egypt and the invading God of the Hebrews.
Interestingly, the Bible speaks of Jehovah as coming physically into Egypt in order to battle pharaoh’s “gods” (which were not gods at all) and to lead his people to another land. The result of the contest between Jehovah and Egypt’s deities underscores the idea that the God of the Hebrews was the universal god, that he was not limited by international boundaries. Generally speaking, deities in the ancient world were conceived to be limited to the territories of the people who worshiped them. When one crossed an international frontier, one also passed from the territory of one god to the territory of another. The story of Naaman illustrates this. Naaman came to Elisha seeking a cure for his leprosy. After he was freed from the disease he asked Elisha’s permission to take two donkey loads of earth back to Syria so that he could worship the Lord Jehovah on Jehovah’s own ground (see 2 Kgs. 5:17-18).
The lasting importance of the Lord’s deliverance of the Hebrews from bondage was recalled again and again in their oaths and prayers. The phrase was, “The Lord liveth, that brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt” (Jer. 16:14). The Lord told Jeremiah that only one other act would be as great and momentous: when, as the exalted Lord, he will gather his people for the last time. On that occasion, a new phrase would be introduced that would characterize the Lord and that work (Jer. 16:15).
Jeroboam: The FugitiveJeroboam is the next biblical personage whose career was affected positively by Egypt. We recall the story of how Ahijah the prophet met Jeroboam and, while symbolically tearing his cloak into twelve pieces, prophesied that Jeroboam would rule over the northern tribes (see 1 Kgs. 11:29-39). Jeroboam at the time was serving as a foreman in the public works sector of Solomon’s administration. Naturally, Solomon was alarmed by the prophecy and sought Jeroboam’s life. Jeroboam fled to Egypt until the death of Solomon (see 1 Kgs. 11:40; 1 Kgs. 12:2-3). In this case, Egypt formed a sanctuary for the fugitive Jeroboam.
Jeremiah’s ProphecyOf the later prophets, Jeremiah had most to do with Egypt. Late in his life he was taken by force to Egypt, where he apparently lived out the rest of his life (see Jer. 43:5-7). Earlier in his ministry, Jeremiah had insisted that the kingdom of Judah should bow to the yoke of Babylonia and not align itself with Egypt. This anti-Egypt, pro-Babylonia position did not find adherents among the leaders of Judah. The results, of course, were disastrous for Jerusalem and the surrounding country.
When Jeremiah was forcibly kidnapped to Egypt by Jews who had assassinated Nebuchadnezzar’s governor, Gedaliah, it appeared that Egypt would again be a place of safety. But Jeremiah made it clear to his Jewish captors that it would not be so. In chapter 44 he addressed all Jews living in Egypt, prophesying that, rather than a shelter from troubles, Egypt would be for them a place of punishment. The Jews in Egypt would be so thoroughly destroyed, he said, that only a “small number” would return to the land of Judah (Jer. 44:28). Finally, Jeremiah prophesied, the scourge of the sword would be so great that the pharaoh himself would fall to it (see Jer. 44:30). This prophecy was fulfilled in 525 B.C. when the Persians under Cambyses overran Egypt.
The Elephantine TempleContemporary with Jeremiah was a military colony of Jews on Elephantine, a small granite island in the Nile River adjacent to the modern city of Aswan. Though these Jews were serving as mercenary soldiers for the pharaoh, they nevertheless wished to continue in their religious worship. Accordingly, as archaeological excavations of the site have shown, they built a temple. This temple flourished and served the Jewish colony until it was destroyed in 411 B.C. by Egyptians rioting against the Jewish God in favor of the god Khnum. We learn from the existence of the Elephantine temple that at least some Jews of that period regarded Egypt as their home. With their own temple (even though they may have been apostate) they would no longer have to look to Jerusalem as the spiritual center of their religion. That center, instead, was right in Egypt with them.
Flight of the Holy FamilyEgypt served as a refuge for Israelites one final time in the Bible. That occurrence was with the baby Jesus. When Jesus and his parents fled Bethlehem to Egypt (see Matt. 2:13-14), it is estimated that up to one million Jews lived in the city of Alexandria. But in the traditions that have grown up in Egypt concerning the “flight of the Holy Family,” it has been assumed that Joseph and Mary avoided populated areas, especially those in which large numbers of Jews lived.
The biblical record says nothing about where Joseph led his family. But where the Bible has left off, tradition has continued the story. Joseph is said to have led his family into the delta about midway between the modern cities of Port Said and Suez. They wound their way across the delta, making a number of stops. At almost every resting place a miraculous event is reported to have occurred, according to the legends. The Holy Family first stopped at the town of Basta near the large, modern city of Zagazig.
Later, according to a local story, the family arrived in the delta town of Belbeis. They eventually arrived at the Roman fortress Babylon, which controlled the Nile river’s traffic at a place just south of modern Cairo. Over a cave there, in which the family is believed to have stayed, was later built the Church of St. Sergis.
After a brief stay in the cave within this large Roman fort, the family is said to have sailed for upper Egypt from the spot where the Church of the Holy Virgin in Maadi now stands. Their long trip, mostly by boat but partly by foot, took them eventually to the Qousqam Mountains. It is believed that the Holy Family lived here in a cave. It is in this cave that the angel is said to have appeared to Joseph, instructing him to take the child and Mary back to their home (see Matt. 2:19-20).
None of the details of the journey of the Holy Family can be confirmed by historical evidence. We do know, however, that the Holy Family did go to Egypt, and that fact has been a source of pride and awe for members of the Coptic Orthodox Church, descendants of the original Egyptian Christians. The theme of the flight of the Holy Family has been a favorite of Coptic storytellers and artists, although its prominence did not emerge on a large scale in Coptic art until the eighteenth century.
From this brief review it is apparent that Egypt played an enormous role in the waxing and waning fortunes of ancient Hebrews from the time of Abraham to the days of Jesus. Along with other lands in the area, the Lord used Egypt to test and train and preserve his people.