“The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000 BC – 1492 AD” by Simon Schama

The Story of the Jews

Well, I thought I knew their story – until I read this masterpiece and found out how little I knew. The Exodus story is something you can’t help knowing, how Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, how they wandered in the desert and finally reached the Promised Land. You needed faith to believe the story but I had believed it anyway, at least most of it, excepting of course the more fanciful parts, like the parting of the Red Sea and the encounter with God on Mount Sinai. Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the Temple of Solomon in 587 BCE. Cyrus of Persia liberated the Jews and enabled the rebuilding of the temple. Jesus was a Jew. The Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70CE and scattered the Jews in all directions. All this I knew. I also knew that my home state, Kerala, had a Jewish community from times immemorial – and after the birth of Israel many of them migrated. Like everyone else, I knew about the Holocaust. And well, the Qumran scrolls or Dead Sea Scrolls as they are called. (I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that I’d learnt about the Spanish Inquisition in my schooldays but had forgotten what it was all about.)

This book was an eye-opener. It brought to mind just as many questions as answers. If the Israelites found Egypt so abhorrent, why did they keep going back there? “The very first time that ‘Israel’ appears on any historical artefact is on the famous late thirteenth century BCE triumphal inscription of Pharaoh Merneptah, son of Rameses II.” The inscription claimed that Israel had been routed. This lends credence to the belief that Rameses II is the Pharaoh of the Exodus. And the Exodus probably did happen, though no evidence has been found till date.

Egyptian sources claim that when Sennacherib’s Assyrian army surrounded Jerusalem in 715 BCE it was an army under the Nubian pharaoh that broke the siege. Very plausible, says Simon Schama. So Egypt wasn’t a permanent enemy after all.

In the 6th century BCE Jews were settled in many parts of Egypt. In Elephantine, the capital of the Pathros region, they even had a temple. They kept the Sabbath, made animal sacrifices and circumcised their sons. Surviving documents related to marriage and divorce reveal interesting facts. While Israelite men had unilateral rights to divorce their wives, in Egypt Jewish women were also entitled to initiate the separation. Tragedy truck in 410 BCE when the temple was destroyed, rebuilt, and destroyed again. By the middle of the fourth century BCE, before the coming of Alexander, the Elephantine colony had ceased to exist. However, a century later Jewish settlements had popped up all over Egypt, especially at Alexandria and Thebes.

The Hebrew Bible was written over three centuries – eighth to fifth BCE. While it proclaims monotheism and an exclusive bond with Yehowah, it chronicles a saga of betrayals, transgressions, atrocities, disasters and defeats. “David’s best-loved son, Absalom, is killed in a particularly horrifying way while in rebellion against his father. Solomon’s imperially aggrandizing kingdom lasts not even one generation after his death. King Manasseh institutes the horror of child sacrifice by fire. The Egyptians are always at one gate and the Mesopotamian empires at the other.”

The Song of the Sea has much in common with the Phoenician epic of the storm god Baal’s conquest of the sea. Ecclesiastes is a ‘Wisdom Book’ that owes something to Persian-Babylonian proverbial literature. It was the Hellenistic Jewish world that invented the synagogue. ‘Holocaust’ was the Greek word for ritual cremation of whole animals. Only Greeks and Jews made fire sacrifices of whole animals.

Judaism was imposed at the point of the sword (and the circumciser’s knife) on neighbouring peoples like Itureans and Idumeans. In the first century BCE the Roman general Pompey marched through the Temple, tearing aside the curtain veil and entering the Holy of Holies, where only the high priest was admitted. But he spared the temple, as Alexander had done centuries ago. Eventually Vespasian would destroy it.

The mass social upheaval in the towns and villages of Palestine, the coming of Jesus and his crucifixion, the exaltation of Christianity as the state religion of Rome, the birth of Islam, the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem, the Crusades, the persecution of Jews by Christians in various parts of Europe, and the horrors of the Inquisition are set out in explicit detail. One is left feeling sorry for the Jews, although the author recounts the atrocities committed by the Jews as well.

There is much that would evoke shock and/or surprise. Here are some examples:

  • Judaism and Zoroastrianism had shared purity obsessions,including a belief in the uncleanness of menstruation.
  • Peter the apostle refused to share a table with the uncircumcised.
  • The Prophet Muhammad first commanded the Believers to pray in the direction of Jerusalem. It was only when the Jews of Yathrib rejected his beliefs that he switched the orientation to Makkah.
  • Christians were forbidden by Canon Law to lend money at interest. So it wasn’t just the Jews and Muslims who had this prohibition!
  • Much of the heart of Westminster Abbey comes from the estate of Licoricia the Jewess and her husband, David of Oxford. The Crown had appropriated the estate in the thirteenth century. Soon thereafter the Jews of England were all sent packing. This happened in France, Germany, Spain and Portugal. By the time Columbus had set out to discover America in 1492, Spain had been wiped clean of its Jewish population and five years later Portugal followed suit.!
  • When Vasco da Gama returned in triumph after his India expedition he brought to Portugal back not only spices and animals but also a Polish Jew. I wonder what became of the poor man in a country that had evicted all its Jews!

The book has a sequel. I intend to read it soon.

Overall Assessment: A labour of love.

The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000 BC – 1492 AD
AUTHOR: SIMON SCHAMA
PUBLISHER: VINTAGE
YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 2014


Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

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