The Genesis of Judaism

Where do Jews come from?

The following article is reprinted with permission from A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People edited by Eli Barnavi and published by Schocken Books.


The beginnings of ancient nations are always shrouded in mist. The social structures which gradually evolve into a “nation” do so in a slow, lengthy, and mainly unconscious process. The agonizing question “How did we become a nation?” usually finds its initial answer within the realm of myth; and it is the historian who needs to grapple with the difficult and uncertain demarcation between myth and historical truth.

The Book of Genesis offers some answers to the questions which the nascent Hebrew nation had to contend with at the time: How was the world created? Why does a woman bear children in pain? What is the significance of the rainbow? And first and foremost: Where did we come from? How did the Hebrew nation come into being?

The answers provided for the last question are all of a historical nature: “our father” Abraham, whom God promised to multiply into a great nation, begot Isaac; Isaac begot Jacob; and Jacob’s twelve sons became in Egypt the twelve tribes of Israel. How much of this story is historical fact and what part is myth? Who was Abraham? When did he live? Was he a real‑life historical figure or a mere mythological fiction?

The Torah as History?

As long as the Torah was believed to be the living word of God, queries of this kind were unthinkable; once it began to be regarded as a human document and scrutinized with modern exegetical tools, scholars needed to seek scientific corroboration. Yet even the least historically authentic biblical traditions clearly represent real events, social processes, and flesh‑and‑blood figures. More emphatically, it is precisely these traditions which convey the archaic culture of the people and contain the seeds of its future civilization.

Biblical narrative describes the wanderings of the patriarchs through the Fertile Crescent. Abraham and his clan left Ur, near the Euphrates delta (today Tell al‑Muqayyar) and, after passing through the major centers of civilization of the time–Babylon and Mari–arrived in Haran, approximately 2000 miles from their point of departure. Their destination was the land of Canaan: “Leave your own country, your kinsmen, and your father’s house, and go to a country that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1).

After arriving there, however, they continued their nomadic exist­ence. Isaac made Beersheba his home, and seldom left it. However, his son Jacob resumed peregrinating. He returned to Haran, sojourning for many years with his uncle Laban; then, returning to Canaan with a wealth of children and property, he continued to wander. Finally he took his family down to Egypt, where he died.

Patriarchs In Space, Not in Time

In the Bible, the patriarchs are located in space but not in time. The background seems to be the first half of the second millennium B.C.E. Mesopotamian sources support this assumption as they establish the existence of cultural links between Ur and Haran at the time. Both towns worshipped the same deity–the moon god, Sin. These sources also refer to western Semitic tribes who invaded the valleys of the Euphrates and Tigris and recount the ensuing decline of Ur–a possible cause for the migration of local populations to calmer regions in the north. This is where one should seek explanations for the Mesopotamian influence discernible in the Pentateuch, particularly in its legislative portions.

The stories of the patriarchs’ migrations are therefore true in the sense of containing certain accepted historical facts: the ethnic basis and the social structures of the tribes about to merge into a new nation–the people of Israel.

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