Judaism is fundamentally a revealed religion. It is based on the belief that God revealed Himself to the Jewish people through the agency of Moses. For this reason, its development, both in the biblical period and beyond, can be understood only in terms of a reshaping and reinterpretation of the biblical heritage. The traditions of the biblical world were axiomatic for later Judaism. Meaning and message were debated, but not authority. Biblical authority meant different things to the different groups of Jews in the Second Temple and rabbinic periods, but it was in the area of interpretation that they differed—all agreed on the basic principle that the biblical tradition was binding.

For this reason, we will begin with a historical sketch of the biblical period up to the rise of the Persian Empire, emphasizing those aspects of the biblical heritage that had the most profound cultural and religious influence on the subsequent history of Judaism.


The history of Judaism began in the early second millennium B.C.E. in Mesopotamia, where, as a result of the destruction of the city Ur of the Chaldees and other external circumstances, a population movement was taking place. Among those migrating northward to Assyria was a family destined to come to the realization that there was but one God. This family, according to the biblical account, was led in successive generations by Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their wives. They later migrated to the land then called Canaan and there developed the monotheistic idea.

Some scholars have argued that the religion of the patriarchs was simply a form of monolatry, a religion in which only one God is worshipped although the existence of others is accepted, but the biblical evidence strongly supports the view that they were authentic monotheists. On the other hand, the later development of the biblical sacrificial system makes it evident that the early Israelites also believed in demonic powers, and God’s divine retinue of angelic beings, as described in some of the psalms, is similar in some ways to the pantheons of polytheistic Mesopotamia and Ugarit (a town, on the site now known as Ras Shamra, in ancient Syria).

Sometime in the fourteenth century B.C.E., numerous West Semites, including some members of the patriarchal family, migrated to Egypt. The historical memory of the experience of slavery and redemption there was to set a definitive cast on the Jewish people and their religious faith. Leaving Egypt in approximately 1250 B.C.E. amidst cataclysmic events (the exodus), the children of Israel experienced, at Sinai, a religious and national awakening at which, according to biblical tradition, God revealed Himself to them. Under their leader and teacher Moses, they accepted the Torah as the law of God. It would be the guidepost for all subsequent Jewish history.

The historicity of the exodus has been denied by some modern scholars, who claim that the entire story was a later invention to provide a common history where none really existed, a history that was supposedly needed because the biblical Israelites were an amalgamation of diverse clans and peoples whose experiences and backgrounds were quite different. This, however, is a great oversimplification. While it is certainly true, as the biblical account testifies, that various groups joined themselves to the Israelites during the exodus and the period of wandering in the desert, as well as during the conquest of Canaan, it is also clear that the children of Israel, by this time, had a strong sense of peoplehood and had attained a high level of group identity and cohesiveness.

By the early twelfth century B.C.E. Israel had entered the land of Canaan, slowly conquering it and beginning to forge a new society. In the ideal, this society was to be based upon the traditions which the Israelites believed they had received at Sinai. In fact, the ideal was far from the reality. Canaanite influence was everywhere in evidence, and it was many years before the Israelites were able to purge their society of it.

The political and military challenge posed by the neighbors of the Israelites led to the setting up of a monarchy. During the period of the Judges (ca. 12OO–ca. 1020 B.C.E.), the process of conquering and displacing the pre-Israelite natives, and of absorbing many of them, continued. Military threats were met by the rise of charismatic military figures (Hebrew shofetim, “judges,”) who delivered the people from the enemy. Often, tribes would band together informally either to dislodge the previous inhabitants or to meet a challenge to their own occupation of the land. Yet no real central organization of the tribes of Israel existed. As the threat posed by the Philistines increased, popular pressure for a centralized government eventually led to the rise of the monarchy.

The head of the new government was King Saul (ca. 1020–ca. 1000), in many ways one of the last of the judges, yet also the first of the kings. Like a judge, he had no organized bureaucracy, yet he had the legal and administrative powers of a monarch. King David (reigned ca. 1000–961 B.C.E.), coming to power as an immensely popular figure, conquered vast areas and established an empire, and his son King Solomon (961–922 B.C.E.) built the Jerusalem Temple.

The kingdom of Solomon split after his death into two small states, Judah in the south and Israel in the north. The Northern Kingdom was much more open to pagan influences. Throughout the period of the divided monarchy (from 922 B.C.E. on), the prophets struggled to prevent the Israelites from participating in pagan worship. During this period two of the kings of Judah, Hezekiah (727–698 B.C.E.) and Josiah (639–609 B.C.E.), outlawed the various shrines throughout the country and centralized the sacrificial worship at the Holy Temple. In both Judah and Israel, syncretistic worship (the identification of the God of Israel and His worship with that of the pagan deities) was widespread, even involving some of the kings, and the prophets castigated them for this transgression as well as for the many social ills that apparently plagued Israelite society in the period of the divided monarchy.

The fortunes of north and south were invariably linked in this period. Whenever the royal houses of the two kingdoms joined together to make common cause, their combined empire almost reached the extent of the earlier Solomonic empire. Whenever they bickered or fought with each other, they were reduced to the status of petty clients of Egypt or Mesopotamia. With time, however, both kingdoms were swallowed up by the surrounding empires. The north was destroyed by Assyria in 722 B.C.E., and the south, together with the Jerusalem Temple, by Babylonia in 586 B.C.E.

These developments were momentous for the history of Judaism. On the one hand, the Temple had to be replaced, even if temporarily. Although we have no evidence, some kind of non-Temple worship must have developed in the exile. Also, for the first time, there was now a sizable Jewish population outside of the Land of Israel. The Diaspora had been born, and Judaism had taken the first steps to becoming a world religion.


The foundation for the subsequent development of Judaism lies in the Torah, also referred to as the Five Books of Moses or the Pentateuch. The Torah is a combination of narrative and prescriptive legal material. Its early narratives in the Book of Genesis and the beginning of the Book of Exodus set out a variety of theological concepts and views of man’s relationship to God and the world which serve as the basis of later Judaism. It tells the story of creation and the development of civilization, detailing the earliest stages of world history. It then focuses particularly on the fate of one nation, the Israelites, as they are enslaved in Egypt and then liberated to take possession of their own land.

The theory of creation presented in the Book of Genesis considers God the Creator of all, and later books of the Bible allude to and demythologize more mythical accounts which are today familiar to us from ancient Near Eastern sources. Genesis also relates the story of civilization, beginning with a description of developments that took place even before what anthropologists have termed the Neolithic revolution. This description emphasizes the evolution of civilization from the hunter-gatherer stage (the Garden of Eden) up to the rise of agriculture and herding, and the development of various arts and crafts. It then tells the flood story, emphasizing the dangers inherent in the decline of a society’s moral standards. Here again the Torah demythologized a myth that was familiar in the ancient world, placing the emphasis on the morality of God and His concern for the morality of His creatures. Immediately thereafter, the Torah sets out the table of nations, explaining how the peoples of the world descended from one another and how they were related. It then describes the dangers of urbanization by relating the story of the Tower of Babel.

Genesis also details the history of the patriarchal family. Much of this history concerns its place in the progressive religious selection which eventually led to Israel’s role as recipient of the revelation of the Torah. Through the lives of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their descendants, we follow the development of the monotheistic ideas of early Israelite religion. In each new generation, an unsuitable son—Ishmael, Esau—finds himself excluded from the line which eventually becomes Israel. Finally, with the sons of Jacob, the entire family is worthy of the mantle which the patriarch seeks to bestow.

The patriarchs worship God through private sacrifices carried out as part of momentous religious experiences during which they are said to commune directly with God. Here already is enshrined the covenant concept. God is portrayed as having entered into agreements with the forefathers to give Israel the land and make it a great and numerous people. Slavery and the exodus from Egypt are foretold to them, emphasizing early on that the history of Israel is to be seen as part of a divinely guided plan. The concept of God as a close family deity, worshipped within the familial context, is stressed over and over. All of these ideas became major pillars of subsequent Jewish tradition.


Out of the experience at Sinai, and out of the Israelites’ perception that they had been vouchsafed a revelation of God, emerged the Torah literature. The Torah is considered by Jewish tradition to be the result of direct divine revelation to Moses and, through him, to the Jewish people as a whole. Modern scholars have challenged this assertion, basing themselves on literary analyses of the Torah text. They have theorized that the Torah was redacted, or edited, from several documents, each the product of a different time and a different circle of authors. Until the modern era, however, such issues in no way affected the development of Judaism. For the talmudic rabbis and their medieval successors, as for contemporary Orthodox Judaism, the assumption of the sanctity and revealed character of the Torah was axiomatic. Since our purpose here is only to set the stage for a study of postbiblical Judaism, we need not go into the theories regarding the dating and authorship of the various parts of the Pentateuch. Our problem is rather to understand the nature of the text as it was written down and transmitted to later generations.

The Torah consists of a somewhat disparate group of materials, among which the legal, prescriptive codes play a prominent role. This is well illustrated by the Book of Exodus, which begins by relating the story of the slavery and redemption of Israel in its first part, but then takes up very different themes. First it presents a legal code, termed by scholars the Book of the Covenant, which concerns matters of civil and criminal law. This code shows many affinities with the laws of the ancient Near East and has often been compared to the Code of Hammurabi. Comparison shows repeatedly the tendency of biblical law to provide equality before the law to all citizens and to move away from excessive punishment, a pattern continued later in talmudic times. Immediately following this code is a festival calendar. Then come extensive prescriptive texts regarding the building of the Tabernacle, the portable tent sanctuary which would travel through the desert with the children of Israel. These are followed by a lengthy account of the building of the Tabernacle in accord with the instructions presented earlier.

Here we encounter the intricate biblical sacrificial system, which involved a detailed set of rituals for daily and festive occasions, as well as rites of expiation for the collective people of Israel and for individual transgressors. Closely related to sacrifice is the complex system of ritual purity and impurity. Those who came into contact with the dead or with certain creatures, or experienced certain bodily fluxes, were required to undergo purification rituals in order to enter the Tabernacle (the central shrine). All this is codified in the Book of Leviticus. The codes are descriptive, providing the circumstances of the offering and then listing the procedures for the specific sacrifices, including such matters as the times or occasions they are to be offered, the requisite animals, and associated offerings of grain, oil, and wine. In the case of the purity regulations, specific periods of impurity, rites of immersion or ablutions, and purificatory sacrifices are specified. Special emphasis is given to ethical and moral behavior as regards one’s fellow man and to the laws of prohibited consanguineous marriages and the requirement of marital fidelity.

The Book of Numbers contains a detailed code of sacrifices for special occasions, presenting the appropriate daily and festival sacrifices. It is Numbers, not Leviticus, which spells these out in systematic detail. In addition, it describes the organization of the people and their camp in the desert period, as well as the religious and military challenges Israel faced during its wanderings.

The Book of Deuteronomy is essentially a self-contained code, recapitulating many laws already treated elsewhere in the Torah. In certain respects it is similar in form to the typical ancient Near Eastern treaty text. The narrative material at the beginning and end of the book parallels the prologue and epilogue in which the vassal signing a treaty with a ruler binds himself to observe its provisions. In between these two sections comes the body of the treaty; similarly, the code of Deuteronomy, between the book’s introduction and conclusion, specifies the laws that Israel is bound to observe, dealing with such subjects as war, captives, purity, permitted and forbidden foods, festivals, marriage, divorce, rape, and various civil and criminal matters.

The organization of these codes within the Torah calls for some comment. Each code, in its present form, appears to be an independent composition with its own literary conventions and form. Further, the codes often overlap in content, and are written as if the other legal collections did not exist. No cross-references are made, at least not explicitly. This was one of the reasons why some scholars, beginning as early as the eighteenth century, theorized that the Torah had been put together by combining originally independent codes with various narrative traditions. This view of the Torah’s composition, known as the documentary hypothesis, sees the pentateuchal narratives, the Book of the Covenant (the legal code at the end of Exodus), the Priestly Code (Leviticus and parts of Numbers), the Holiness Code (Leviticus 17–26), and the Deuternomic Code as all being discrete, independent compositions.

The talmudic rabbis observed the very same textual overlaps and contradictions, but because of their different understanding of the Torah’s origin used these details as the basis for their exegesis of the legal portions of the Pentateuch, what the tannaim called midrash halakhah. Later Judaism regarded all the peculiarities of the biblical text as grist for the mill of interpretation. Similar patterns of exegesis are observable even in the writings of the sects of the Second Commonwealth. Judaism in ancient times regarded the Torah as having been produced by divine revelation. Every aspect of its text and its diction, therefore, taught some lesson of divine law. Seen in this way and in this spirit, the Torah was able to serve as the basis for the ever-expanding interpretative traditions that constituted the manifold approaches to Judaism studied in this volume.


Central to the biblical tradition is the notion that God is to be worshipped through the sacrificial system. The Bible describes this system as having operated in the desert period, the age of the Judges, and the First Temple era. The biblical codes specify in great detail the manner in which sacrifices and offerings were to be carried out and the occasions when they were required. The Torah also spells out the detailed laws of levitical purity with respect to causes of defilement and rites of purification as well as disqualification of the impure from participation in sacrificial worship.

Sacrifices were of various kinds. The most important categories were those meant to expiate sins and those regarded as meals shared, as it were, with the deity. The expiation offerings were designed to function almost exclusively in cases where the law had been transgressed accidentally. For such violations expiation could be gained through sacrifice. It is as if the animal were seen as suffering the fate the transgressor would have deserved had the offense been committed deliberately. The other type of sacrifice, the shared meal, involves God and man in an intimate relationship, a level of meeting possible only in the holy precincts of the central shrine. Here the burning of certain portions of the sacrificial animal as an offering to God and the eating of other portions by the celebrants created a bond of familial love between God and man. In this way the Israelite was supposed to enter into a close relationship with his God.

The sacrifices were to be conducted by priests descended from the first priest, Aaron, brother of Moses. Seen as specially selected to facilitate the close relationship between man and God, the members of the priesthood were able to bridge the gulf separating mortal from Creator. They were bidden to live lives of purity and holiness, and this entailed, among other things, both stricter marital laws, enumerated in the Bible, and taking special care to avoid ritual defilement. To ensure that the priests would give their full attention to their responsibilities, and not be distracted by the need to earn a livelihood, the Torah required that certain gifts be given to them and their levite assistants.

The Temple remained the center of Jewish piety until its destruction for a second time in 70 C.E. During most of the Second Temple period Aaronide priests provided leadership for the Jews of Palestine. When all hopes for an early restoration of sacrifice after 70 C.E. were dashed, the sacrificial system served as a model for the transposition of Temple-centered piety to synagogue, home, and family. Nonetheless, Jews continued to yearn for a restored Temple.


The authority of the traditions of the Bible in Judaism is founded upon the concept of prophecy. The Bible describes various people as having received direct revelations from God. The revelation to Moses is seen by later tradition as prophecy par excellence.

In the accounts of the patriarchs, we encounter God in relation to man, communicating directly with him. This is not prophecy in the strict sense, however, since the phenomenon of prophecy, in the biblical view, involves the prophet’s having been charged with a message to communicate. It is only with Moses, in the Book of Exodus, that we encounter a prophet who is sent to the people to deliver the word of God. In other words, prophecy has a social dimension. It is not simply a personal religious experience. God sends Moses to deliver His word to the people. Yet Moses’ prophecy differed from that of the other prophets. First, he is described by the Bible as communicating directly with God, whereas the other prophets see God in a dream or trance. Second, he combines in his person the roles of priest, king, and lawgiver (if we may adopt the Hellenistic characterization) alongside that of prophet.

The Bible allows us to trace the history of prophecy in ancient Israel. Not counting Moses, the earliest prophets described in the Bible were seers, charismatic figures who prophesied in a trance, usually induced by the use of music and dance. Often they banded together in guilds and were called “the sons of the prophets.” The guilds were based on the master-disciple relationship and were intended to pass on a tradition of prophecy. There is no definite evidence that prophets of this kind were in any way involved in the moral and religious ferment of the times. They may have been foretellers of the future.

By the time of the first monarchs, Saul, David, and Solomon, the role of the prophet had begun to change. It seems to have taken on some of the charismatic qualities associated with the judges in the period immediately after the conquest, and simultaneously the kings inherited the political and military aspects of the judge’s role. In the early days of the monarchy, the prophet appears as a religious model in the king’s entourage, deeply involved in the life of the royal court, but able, at the same time, to castigate the ruler by means of pointed parables. Other prophets, of lesser importance, may have been attached to the major cultic sites, according to some scholars. By the time of Elijah and Elisha, prophets were found in both the northern and southern kingdoms and were often in conflict with the kings. They had clearly taken on their well-known role as critics of the Israelite society of the day, but had not yet developed into literary figures.

By the ninth century B.C.E., in both Judah and Israel, the minor prophets (so-called because of the size of their literary output) were delivering scathing attacks on the two major transgressions of the time, syncretistic worship and the social ills besetting the country. These two issues would occupy the prophets for years to come. They demanded the extirpation of even minimal participation in idolatrous worship, and called for the amelioration of the injustices being perpetrated against the poor, unlanded classes, insisting, loudly and clearly, that the discharge of cultic duties was of no significance if it was not accompanied by a life of true moral and ethical principles. The earliest of the twelve minor prophets, whose number included such men as Amos and Hosea (eighth century B.C.E.), were the first to leave us written documents of prophetic discourse. They delivered their words in public and apparently recorded them in writing either for their own use or to circulate them more widely.

As the end of the monarchy drew near, and a complex admixture of political and religious issues presented itself, new horizons loomed for the prophets. Isaiah (ca. 74O–ca. 700 B.C.E.), Jeremiah (ca. 627–ca. 585), and Ezekiel (593–571) confronted the new political realities as well as the growing Mesopotamian influence on Israelite worship. The prophecies of these men are infused with the history of the time in which they lived, for all three of them were intimately involved in the affairs of the day and determined to bring to the people of Israel the messages they believed they had received directly from the God of Israel.

Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel brought to culmination the literary development of prophecy. These three great prophets composed poetry and prose that rank among the most beautiful achievements of Hebrew literature. The profundity, beauty, and length of the prophecies attributed to them rendered these men major figures in the eyes of later tradition.

As Judaism developed, the books of the prophets shaped many other aspects of the tradition, most especially the concept of the messianic era, which was rooted in the world of the prophets. Later on, Jewish mysticism took its cue from the prophetic visions of Isaiah and Ezekiel. Prophetic morality and its intimate connections with the ritual life of Judaism also had an enduring effect.


The corpus of biblical literature includes a group of texts termed “wisdom literature.” This genre was based on a common ancient Near Eastern tradition of secular wisdom that by and large was not connected with any specific religion, for wisdom teachings cut across linguistic and cultural differences and were extremely important in both Mesopotamia and Egypt.

Wisdom texts, of whatever provenance, generally provided advice on ethical issues and on how to conduct one’s life and family relationships. The wisdom writings in the Bible include several of the psalms, the Book of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes. Job deals primarily with the problem of evil, and Ecclesiastes with the seeming futility of human activity. As compared to the other books of the Bible, the wisdom texts make little mention of Israel’s theological principles and historical experiences. The issues they present and the advice they proffer might well be described as pan-Near Eastern secular wisdom with a Jewish perspective.

Wisdom was apparently taught in schools specializing in this discipline, and the Book of Proverbs regularly refers to the master-disciple relationship. The wisdom tradition continued in several books of the Second Temple period and had a profound influence on the later development of Judaism.


The biblical heritage laid the groundwork for the many developments we will survey in the following chapters. The Israelite religious and cultural tradition in biblical times was rich, and provided a set of scriptures of interpretation. The various groups and approaches to Judaism that came afterwards differed fundamentally in their interpretations of the biblical material which they inherited. They agreed, however, on one thing, the sanctity and the authority of the biblical heritage. Biblical law and theology would shape Judaism indelibly in future centuries.