By Edward Teeger
In the lives of the three Patriarchs, a father’s blessing of his sons plays a vital role, particularly in handing on God’s covenant of religion and survival. The pattern shows that the first-born may be favoured by the father, but did not inherit the religious leadership. Jacob himself valued the blessing enough to steal it in place of his brother.
The blessings of Jacob (about 1700 BCE), believed by fundamentalist thinkers to have been written by Moses some 400 years later, actually use information which was only apparent in the period between the conquest and settlement of the Land, and before the Assyrian dispersion of the “10 lost tribes” (about 800 BCE). So parts of today’s filial blessings may be ancient legends handed down from Jacob’s days, and parts seem to date from the times of the first temple.
Jacob/Israel’s sons, and the 12 tribes, were known as Bnei Yisrael in Hebrew, but this was supplanted in common usage through post-biblical centuries by words related to just one tribe, Judah (i.e., Jews, Yehudim, amongst others). So why was the tribe of Judah chosen to describe all Jews?
Jacob used his blessing to bestow religious leadership on his third son, Judah. “The sceptre will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,…”
Amongst the descendants of Judah, the result of the hidden sex between Judah and Tamar, was Perez, ancestor of David and his royal descendants. After the country was split into two kingdoms, the Northern Kingdom of Israel was overcome by the Assyrians, and ten tribes were “lost” through exile. The Kingdom of Judah, which included Jerusalem, survived until the Babylonian conquest, which explains the resultant use of the word Jew. The Kingdom of Judah contained, of course, Levi’im and Cohanim, who had no tribal lands. It appears that people of the tribes of Benjamin, Simeon and other remnants lived in the Kingdom of Judah, which explains why we use the collective word Yisrael for all aliyot after the first two. The terms Judah, Jew and Judas, though, have been used for perhaps 2,000 years as an anti-Semitic weapon, and we are still confronted by this inheritance.
J. S. Spong, a retired Episcopal Bishop of Newark, describes in his book “The Sins of Scripture” that the choice of the Christian disciple’s name Judas, and his betrayal, were inventions made 80 years after the events described. His investigation of the earlier Christian texts shows that they do not include or mention such damning events focussed on Judas and the Jews. He suggests that the reasons for creating the betrayal were aimed at the Jews, who at the time of early Christianity were a greater threat than the Roman rulers. The invention of the Judas myth seems to have been about 100 years after the events described, by which time gentiles were also being converted to Christianity, and there was a religious and political purpose in anti-Jewish propaganda. During the rebellion of the Jews against the Romans, the new Christians wanted to be disassociated from the Jews, and to have the Roman ruler “wash his hands” of any guilt.
Interpretations of religious texts continue to have the capacity of political and social manipulation, as well as being a source of inspiration. Future generations will have plenty to dig up about our current situation, and how it is expressed in our reflections.
Edward Teeger is a member of the New London Synagogue, and chair of its Services Committee.