Revision 1.2 “Post-Biblical Judaism”

Revision 1.2 “Post-Biblical Judaism” July 4, 2020


Israel, from space
A satellite image of Israel/Palestine, showing the Sea of Galilee toward the top, connected by the Jordan River to the Dead Sea further southward, and the top of the Gulf of Aqabah (or Eilat) at the lower end of the photo. The Mediterranean Sea, of course, is on the left.
(Wikimedia Commons public domain)


In the previous passage from my forthcoming book, I wrote briefly about the scandal of what we in the West have often called “world history.”  Now I focus a bit more:


Post-Biblical Judaism

There is a similar gap—not scandalous, but still more than a bit unfortunate—in our knowledge of the history of religion. For most Latter-day Saints, and for most Christians generally, the history of Israel ends with Malachi. He is followed by a blank space of a few centuries, and then the New Testament opens. But the New Testament covers the events of only a few decades. In it, the Sadducees and Pharisees strut briefly on the stage, then are gone. This poses a problem. The Bible and the other standard works of the Church contain enough material to guide us on the path to salvation, which is obviously the most important information we could possibly desire, but if we want to understand the world of today, neither the Bible nor any other book of scripture is enough by itself. And this is true even in the area of religion. Surely Latter-day Saints, of all people, will see that it’s impossible to fully understand modern Chris­tianity on the basis of the Bible alone. Too much change has occurred—much of it of the kind that we would recognize as part of the “great apostasy.” By the same token, the Bible doesn’t account for Judaism as it exists today. Yet few of us know much about Juda­ism beyond the Old Testament, the Sadducees, and the Pharisees. Still, if we want to understand the Judaism of today, we have to learn some­thing of its development during the twenty centuries between the crucifixion of Christ and our own time. And, as will become clear, we especially need to learn something about the six centuries between the death of Jesus and the coming of Islam.

The most striking fact about Judaism during the past twenty centuries is its survival. By all reasonable expectations, Judaism should have disappeared long ago, as many other ancient religions have done. Sometimes I think that a powerful argument for the existence of God could be constructed solely on the basis of the fact that Juda­ism exists to this day, and, perhaps even more impressively, on the fact that, two thousand years after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the scattering of the Jews, a Hebrew-speaking Jewish state has been reestablished in the Near East. (The mighty Roman Empire, by contrast, is long gone, and Latin, its rich official language, is thoroughly and completely dead.)  “The Jews,” writes the brilliant British historian Paul Johnson with considerable reason, “are the most tenacious people in history.”[1]

Most of us know something of the history of Israel—which, of course, originally included more tribes than merely Judah, or the Jews—from the Old Testament. Even so, it’s important to remember two central ideas from ancient Hebrew teachings because they continue to be fundamental to Judaism in the centuries after the close of the Bible. These ideas, which have their origins in Abraham himself, are the covenant with God and the attachment to the Land of Israel. The covenant suggests a special relationship between God and those with whom he has made the covenant. It doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily better than others, nor that their souls are worth more than the souls of the Father’s other children. It does, however, mean that they are called to be “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that [they] should shew forth the praises of him who hath called [them] out of darkness into his marvellous light.”[2] Just before the revelation of the Ten Commandments, the Lord told Moses to inform the people that they were to be “a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation.”[3] Even earlier, God spoke to Abraham, saying, “I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing . . . and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.”[4] The prophets of Israel liked to compare the covenant between Jehovah and his people to the marriage contract between a husband and his wife. The people’s unfaithfulness was like a wife’s adultery. The unfortunate prophet Hosea, for instance, was directed by the Lord to make his own family life a symbol of the relationship between God and Israel: “Go, take unto thee a wife of whoredoms and children of whoredoms: for the land hath committed great whoredom, departing from the Lord.”[5] As Hosea’s wife strayed, so too did Israel stray from its promise of faithfulness. The Savior himself denounced “an evil and adulterous generation [that] seeketh after a sign.”[6] Through Isaiah, God announced that, if there was going to be a divorce, it would come because of Israel’s transgressions, not his.[7] But in the last days, Isaiah declared, the Lord would take his “wife” back, and her tent would be so full of children that its stakes would have to be moved further out and the tent expanded just to hold them.[8]

Second, the covenant implies a demand for better behavior. It requires not just accurate notions about God and not just “faith without works.” It requires action, a certain kind of conduct. If other nations are not holy, still Israel is to be holy. If most of us in modern Israel are not quite saints, still we are called “Saints” and are called to become such in full reality. “For,” says the Lord, “of him unto whom much is given much is required.”[9]

The second principle is just as essential to understanding Judaism. From its earliest days, Israel has felt itself linked to a par­ticular piece of land. This is important for many reasons. For one thing, much of the story of Israel recounts its efforts to acquire the land in the first place, along with the warnings of the prophets about losing it and the dream, after one exile or another, of return­ing to it. Many of the messages of the prophets deal with Israel’s worthiness or lack of worthiness to possess the land, as well as with the future of the land—whether that future was darkened in the short term by the wickedness of the people or glorious in the long term because of the mercy and power of Jehovah. This rela­tionship between land and people helped to form Israel in many ways. I think it important, too, to notice which land it was that God appointed for his covenant people. He could have given them a nicer place.

[1] Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews (New York: Harper and Row, 1987), 3.

[2] 1 Peter 2:9.

[3] Exodus 19:6.

[4] Genesis 12:2-3; compare Abraham 2:8-11.

[5] Hosea 1:2.

[6] Matthew 12:39.

[7] Isaiah 50:1; compare Doctrine and Covenants 82:10.

[8] Isaiah 54:1-10. It is this image of the bedouin tent—or, more precisely, of the taberna­cle in the wilderness, which was a special kind of bedouin tent—that gives us our mod­ern word stake for an administrative unit of the Church. The “center stake of Zion” is the pole that holds the tent up in the center.

[9] Doctrine and Covenants 82:3.



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