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A History of the Jews - Part the First [Mar. 8th, 2004|04:03 am]


[mood |tiredtired]
[music |Nine Inch Nails - A Warm Place]

Johnson's A History of the Jews was an assignment for my history class The Modern Middle East. These are notes from the first of four reading assignments. Johnson makes a lot of interesting points, but the book is obviously biased toward proving the truth of the Judeo-Christian position. Not that any history can exist in a vacuum, but I think it could have been a bit more objective.

Isaac was chosen as the offering not only because he was Abraham’s most precious possession but because he was a special gift of God’s, under the covenant, and remained God’s like all the rest of his gifts to man. This underlines the whole purpose of sacrifice, a symbolic reminder that everything man possesses comes from God and is returnable to him. 1

He is a ‘stranger and sojourner’ and remains one even after God’s election, even after he has elaborately purchased the Cave of Machpelah. This uncertainty of ownership is transferred to all his descendants: as the Bible repeatedly reminds us. Thus God tells the Israelites: ‘And the land is not to be sold in perpetuity, for all land is Mine, because you are strangers and sojourners before me’ 2

To leave was to break out not just of physical slavery but of airless spiritual prison: the lungs of Israel in Egypt craved for a fiercer oxygen of truth and a way of life which was purer, freer and more responsible. 3

Moreover, unlike the Greeks, the Israelites, under the inspiration of Isaiah, were moving towards a pure monotheism. There are many passages in the earlier parts of the Bible where Yahweh is seen not so much as the sole God but as the most powerful one, who can act in other gods' territories. 4

Because of the huge number of animals, the slaughter, bloodying and carving up of the carcasses had to be done quickly; and to get rid of the copious quantities of blood, the platform was not solid but hollow, a gigantic cleansing system. … Innumerable pipes conveyed water up to the platform surface, and a multitude of drains carried off the torrents of blood. 5

Ethical monotheism was an idea whose time had come. It was a Jewish idea. But the Christians took it with them to the wider world, and so robbed the Jews of their birthright. 6

As the radical nationalists took over Jerusalem they turned to the rich. One of their first acts was to burn the Temple archives so that all the records of debts would be destroyed. 7

They did not lose their identity in the emergent Dark Age communities …. The Jews survived because the period of intense retrospection enabled their intellectual leaders to enlarge the Torah into a system of moral theology and community law of extraordinary coherence, logical consistency and social strength. Having lost the Kingdom of Israel the Jews turned the Torah into a fortress of the mind and spirit, in which they could dwell in safety and even in content. 8

Almost but not quite: he spent his wealth on supporting scholars, the ablest of whom ate at the top table in his hall; he excempted scholarly men from taxation, at the expense of the workers; and in times of scarcity he fed scholars, but not the unlettered, from his food reserves. … Judah was an intellectual elitist of the most uncompromising kind. He used to say, grimly: ‘It is the unlearned who bring trouble into the world.’ 9

1 Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews, (New York: Harper Perennial, 1987), 18.

2 Ibid., 19.

3 Ibid., 30.
This quote is great if only for the use of the phrase “fiercer oxygen.”

4 Ibid., 76.
I pulled this one because it sums up the Israelite religion rather well. Most people view the early parts of the Bible as though the beliefs it expresses are the same as those at the end of the book. But, Judaism as we know it today is not the same as the religion of the Israelites before Isaiah, and interpreting it as such can only lead to confusion and ignorance.

5 Ibid., 117.
How many times have you wondered what happens to all the blood from temple sacrifices? I never thought about it.

6 Ibid., 132.

7 Ibid., 137.
What a shame. While it make sense to destroy the financial records, it is terrible that whatever else the archives contained is now lost forever. Of course, the Romans would have destroyed it later anyway, but it is almost worse because the Jews did it themselves.

8 Ibid., 149.
This reminded me of Simon and Garfunkle's song I Am a Rock which says, “I have my books and my poetry to protect me.”

9 Ibid., 150.
Wouldn't it be nice if this sort of benefactor system were still in place in the world? As it is, those who go on to pursue scholarly pursuits either start out rich, or poor, and stay that way. How fabulous it would be to be able to pursue knowledge free of the burden of managing your own subsistence.