Recovering Evangelicalism – Seeking a Justice-based peace in the Middle East –

The Ethnic Dilemma – The Problem of Jewish Identity

Others have written in detail about this and I refer you to them, in particular Professor Shlomo Sand’s ‘The Invention of the Jewish People’, (Verso 2009). He has been much traduced for writing it but the principal accusations are of disloyalty rather than inaccuracy. The issues he raises are worthy of attention.

Jewish identity regarded as ethnicity is confused with ‘biblical Israel’.  The ‘Shorter Oxford English Dictionary’ (1944, 1959) defines ‘ethnic’ as from the Middle English, and meaning heathen, i.e. non-Israelish nations, or as Gentile, heathen, pagan. Twenty years later Chambers has ‘concerning nations or races: pertaining to gentiles or the heathen’.  For something more up-to-date try Wikipedia here.  Or Matthew 6:7 : Do not babble as the Gentiles (ethnikoi) do …

It has become commonplace to refer to ‘the Jews’ as if that appellation includes Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, even David, but that is anachronistic; it is not mere semantics to point out that the term is unhelpful.  Prior to the exile of Judah in 585 BC the term simply did not exist. During the exile – of Judah in Babylon – the term came into use for the exiled ‘Yehudans’, people from Yehuda, Judah.  Biblically it doesn’t appear until the late exile period at earliest. (on the problem of ‘Exile’ see The Right of Return- the Truth).    Even the translation of i.e. Ezra 4:12 is questionable; for ‘Jews’ read ‘Judeans’.  So, the identification of the patriarchs as ‘Jews’ is misleading.

Deuteronomy 26 charges the Israelite when he presents his offering to say, “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor (lit, Abi = father), which we assume must refer to Jacob who went to Aram to escape from Esau and find a wife – or two.  Aram is today’s Syria, but what of the main patriarch, Abraham, where did he come from? He came with his father, Terah, from Ur of the Chaldeans, the Iran of today.  So, from the beginnings we have a confusion over ethnic identity. Is Israel Persian, or Syrian or what?

Matters are no clearer as the story progresses. It would be surprising, humans being what we are, if Jacobs sons didn’t ‘shop around’ for wives; what else were they supposed to do? And we know that Judah had a Canaanite wife and an incestuous relationship with his Canaanite daughter-in-law, (Gen 38), Simeon had a child by a Canaanite woman (Gen 46) and Joseph had two sons by Asenath, the Egyptian daughter of the priest of On (Gen 41). When we later learn that Moses had two wives, a Midianite and a Cushite, and that one of Aaron’s (grand)son’s name, Phineas, is an Egyptian loan word meaning ‘the black’ we begin to get a picture of mixed DNA.

Equally interesting and important in understanding the story of God is the appearance of Caleb as the representative of Judah and a faithful Israelite. We know, of course, that Caleb and Joshua were the two spies who returned from Canaan to Moses saying, “we can do it”, (Number 13, 14).  They were overruled by the majority but were promised that, unlike the rest of their generation, they would enter the land. Quite often in scripture when we are told the name of a person he is ‘the son of’; so Joshua is ‘son of Nun’. When Caleb went to ‘Joshua son of Nun‘ to claim his land we read ‘Then the people of Judah came to Joshua at Gilgal; and Caleb son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite said to him …’ (Josh 14). I’m not keen on using very short texts but the context here is from Genesis 15, a chapter much loved, and much misunderstood, by Christian Zionists. For among the tribes to be displaced by Abram’s descendants are the Kenizzites. They are missing from other lists but they are here in Genesis 15,  and maybe surprisingly, Joshua 14 specifically names them.  Throw in a Moabite grandparent for David, and Hittites, Amorites, Cushites and others, and we may be forgiven for regarding a pure ‘Israelite’ line as inconceivable. And, if ‘Israelite’ is problematic ethnically, it is no easier with ‘Jewish’.

Part of our problem lies in attaching modern concepts of ‘nation’ and ‘nationality’ to very different historical contexts. And that is the same for British and (North) American  in our own particular histories. We in UK think of ourselves as ‘An Island Race’ as if we were genetically singular. Put like that it should be obvious we are nothing of the sort.

Are we on firmer ground by thinking of Jewishness not as an ethnicity but as culture or religion? We know that for the 400 year period either side of Jesus, Judaism was a proselytising religion.  This ceased during the 2nd century AD partly because of fears within the Jewish leadership that assimilation was weakening the faith in face of competition with Christianity; partly because of increasing antipathy between the two groups, (It’s a lot more complicated than that, of course).  Nevertheless, it does mean that we cannot view ‘Jewishness’ as simply ‘national’: bearing in mind that nationalism as we know it is a very recent concept, (mid 18th century).

It might be easier to identify ‘Jewishness’ as race or nation if one could distinguish specific features but we can’t. Consider the Nazi search for clear definitions for the michlinge regulations and the continuing problems Israel’s orthodox have with the same question, ‘who is a Jew?’  Even a Zionist such as Jonathan Freedland describes Israel today as a ‘virtual fruit salad’ – you can’t tell from looking who is who, except by dress and name. Genetic studies don’t help, or rather, they don’t help the Zionist claim.  The difficulty with Genetics studies of Jews; Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Mizrahi, can be seen in the Wikepedia page which has the disclaimer ‘the neutrality of this article’s introduction is disputed’.  What seems to be clear at present is that any genetic association between the different Jewish groups is open to a number of interpretations, including that some, Ashkenazi especially – who make up 75 -80% of Jews,  may have little or no link to the Middle East for the period in question.  That is to say: Like most Europeans they may have travelled through the ME some 20,000 years ago but their recent, 2-3,000 year history is essentially European.  (This will no doubt be disputed by people who understand genetics. I anticipate that my critics will cover all options, which is pretty much what my reading reveals!).

I have already pointed to my parallel article on the exile, which, if you have read it, hints at the additional difficulties. I was brought up, amongst other things, on the ‘Lost Ten Tribes of Israel’, who somehow ended up as ‘The English Speaking Peoples’; a fascinating way of explaining British Imperialism. As a young man I realised that the idea was irrelevant, but as I have studied the biblical text I came to understand that most of them were never lost at all, just ignored. We are all, no doubt, familiar with the exiles: the northern kingdom of Israel/Samaria in 722BC and the three associated with the southern kingdom, Judah, culminating in 585BC and the destruction of Solomon’s temple. We may recall, on prompting, that Nebuchadnezzar only took into captivity the elite. We are told in 2 Kings 25 that Nebuzaradan, the captain of the guard ‘left some of the poorest people of the land to be vinedressers and tillers of the soil.’ It is worth pointing out that even as recently as the late 19th century in Britain the substantial population was poor and employed in agriculture. 3000 years ago that proportion would have been as high as 90%.  Even accounting for the priesthood and army – really a militia – and the devastation of war, it is likely that substantially more than 50% of the people of Judah remained in the land.

What of Israel/Samaria?  2 Kings 17 tells us that ‘the king of Assyria … carried the Israelites away to Assyria. He placed them in Halah, on the Habor,the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes’; and, that ‘The king of Assyria brought people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath and Sepharvaim, and placed them in the cities of Samaria in place of the people of Israel; they took possession of Samaria and settled in its cities’. That seems pretty conclusive, except …

What’s the context?  The logistics of wholesale population transfer makes the exercise at least unlikely. Then we should consider the testimony of this king of Assyria, for Sargon II, it was he, claimed to have taken 27,290 inhabitants.  He does claim to have rebuilt the cities and to have settled other conquered peoples there, but 27,290 is barely the population of ten villages.That, too, is important context. We’ve noted, above, that the majority population worked the land in agriculture. Cities are where the administrators lived, and that is the most likely explanation. Nor should we think of cities in a modern sense. Apart from Samaria which, like Jerusalem at the time, may have had a population of no more than 30,000, the fortified towns would have probably fewer than 5,000 permanent residents, and villages 2,000 at most. Assuming a population for the northern kingdom of between 500,000 and 750,000 and, notwithstanding the devastation of warfare, it is probable that over 300,000 remained. Indeed, that is the substance of the Samaritan claim to be the true descendents of Israel, although there is no doubt that people from the places mentioned  in 2 Kings were introduced into the surviving community.

Is there any biblical evidence? As it happens, yes. 2 Chronicles 30 records the invitation by Hezekiah, king of Judah to ‘all Israel and Judah … that they should come to the house of the Lord at Jerusalem, to keep the passover to the Lord the God of Israel’. This is evidently (v.6) after the capture of Samaria.  The proclamation was ‘from Beer-sheba to Dan’, that is ‘all Israel’. The tribes mentioned are Ephraim, Manasseh, Zebulun, Asher and Issachar who, together with Judah, Benjamin and the Levites represent two-thirds of Jacob’s sons. Had these peoples come into Judah as refugees there would be no need to send to Dan and Beer-Sheba, and had they been assimilated it is unlikely they’d be referred to by a historic tribal name.

That raises the question of what happened to them; how did they fit in to the story of Israel-Judah’s exile and to the story of the return just 47 years after Jerusalem’s fall. There is no space here to examine that question. The Samaritans claimed and claim to be part of the answer, but perhaps a re-reading of Ezra-Nehemiah with all this in mind could be revealing. No space here, and other people will no doubt be more competent.

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